Two spouses with two styles

Kendel Ehrlich: In public appearances and commercials, the veteran lawyer is at the forefront of her husband's campaign.

Election 2002

October 07, 2002|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

It's yet another campaign fund-raiser in another hotel conference room and scores of attorneys have paid $500 to attend a VIP reception with Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Michael S. Steele, his running mate.

But when the time comes for the attorneys to pose with Ehrlich for photos, it's not the running mate who is summoned to join him in front of the camera.

Rather, it's the life mate -- Kendel Ehrlich, his wife.

"I kind of thought it was inappropriate that I was in those pictures," she says later. "I said that to Bob and he said, `I want you in the pictures.'"

And so the 40-year-old lawyer did what she has been doing during the campaign and for much of her life -- she stepped front and center.

Once a registered Democrat, she is very much a Republican now, and an important face of her husband's campaign. She appears in televised campaign ads with the couple's 3-year-old son and is a stand-in for the candidate at speeches. If he is elected governor, she is likely to pursue issues of drug and alcohol abuse that she identified during nearly 10 years as an Anne Arundel County public defender and a Harford County prosecutor.

She won't rule out running for a judgeship one day, though not soon.

If she sometimes moves haltingly toward the camera, that's because she is walking a line that most candidate spouses tread to varying degrees -- be helpful but not intrusive, visible but not dominant.

"It boils down to the candidate, and I'm an assist -- Stockton to Malone," she says, reciting the names in a professional basketball combination renowned for teamwork.

But she is hardly in the background. Asked about other political campaigns that relegate wives to the status of wallpaper, she laughs and says, "No, I can't even fake that. That's not happening."

The joke at some Ehrlich campaign events is that it's a good thing that he has such a strong personality -- otherwise he would risk being overshadowed by his outgoing wife.

A poised public speaker, she has a hearty laugh that bespeaks confidence. For now, she is on leave from a legal post with Comcast Cable Communications while she completes rehabilitation from a back injury that she suffered in July and tends to her husband's campaign. Normally, she skis, runs, plays golf or works out at Gold's Gym when she is not working or taking care of son Drew.

The fourth-term congressman calls his wife "a hard-headed Polish woman, very opinionated, very good-looking."

They don't agree on everything. Both say they favor abortion rights, but he has voted against spending public money on abortions for the poor. "It's a closer call for me whether or not there should be government funding," she says.

Says Mike Grossfeld, a friend who worked with her in the public defender's office: "She's certainly not afraid to state her opinion. Like in any marriage, there is a give and take."

Kendel Ehrlich agrees but adds a caveat: "I don't tell him what to do."

They were married in 1993, though she professed a longtime aversion to political life -- and politicians. He was a member of the House of Delegates soon to run for Congress, and she was an assistant public defender in Annapolis.

"He said, `Do you want to go out?' and I said, `Well no, not really.' I sort of had this stereotype like many people do about politics and politicians," she says.

Recalls Susan Bancroft, a longtime friend: "We said, `It's just a date. You don't have to marry the guy.'"

Even after they started seeing each other, she broke it off after three months. He showed up at her door a month later "with a list of pros and cons. He said it should really be the person, not the job. He had a really strong point with that."

With a trial attorney's thick skin, she says she has accepted that being married to a politician subjects them both to public scrutiny, even sometimes of their personal life.

In 2000, a Queenstown woman wrote a letter to the editor of The Capital of Annapolis, accusing the Ehrlichs of exploiting their then-toddler son by featuring him frolicking with a football in a campaign commercial. "They leave the little cherub ... in the care of others for most of his waking hours and exploit the innocent lad on television for self-promotion," the letter said.

But Kendel Ehrlich says, "She was all wrong. Since he's been born I haven't worked full time."

But she says the letter did illuminate a fact of political life: "You know what? You can't win. Your skirt's either too long or too short. Let me tell you, I am very comfortable with myself."

`Breath of fresh air'

That comfort level would extend, she says, to being a family role model in the governor's mansion. "I think people do want a breath of fresh air," she says. "I have one major priority: Drew Ehrlich. That's just the truth."

Ehrlich's congressional Web site contains an article from 2000 under then-9-month-old Drew's byline -- "as told to Mrs. Terry King," the congressman's executive assistant, it says.

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