Ehrlich defined by time in halls, not on the floor

Career: The GOP candidate for governor has worked mostly behind the scenes in Congress, lobbying other lawmakers and gaining strong allies.

Election 2002

October 16, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. glides past the guards with a quick "How ya doin'?" and swings open the doors to the private balcony of the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. The view is grand, sweeping down the front steps of the Capitol, across the reflecting pool and straight to the top of the Washington Monument.

"See?" he says, after considering one of the nation's most iconic swaths of architecture. "There are advantages to being in the majority party."

During his eight years in Congress, Ehrlich, 44, has blossomed within the Republican caucus, gaining membership in an elite group of whips, becoming a close friend of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, maneuvering himself onto a top committee and generally earning a reputation as a fellow to watch.

Since he began campaigning for governor, Ehrlich has talked little of his congressional career, focusing instead on his ideas for running Maryland. But his record has been a prominent part of the race as his opponent, Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, has broadcast certain votes as proof that he is "too conservative for Maryland."

Ehrlich has billed himself as a moderate, and his campaign Web site stresses topics on which he has broken from his party. "Unafraid to exert his independence when necessary, Bob has taken a number of positions - opposing term limits, supporting a woman's right to choose and backing strong environmental protections - that have put him at odds with the House leadership," the site says.

In fact, Ehrlich's career on Capitol Hill has advanced because of near-unwavering loyalty to the party leadership. In his first year in Washington, he voted with the Republican majority 90 percent of the time.

By his own admission, Ehrlich has not primarily used his talents to shape national policy or even write legislation. He rarely speaks on the House floor or appears before the television cameras.

His strength lies in helping make things happen - no small feat in a fiercely partisan body of 435 lawmakers - by clever politicking and the irrepressible force of a gregarious personality. As the brief tour of the speaker's suite demonstrates, Ehrlich is a behind-the-scenes actor who, although hardly a household name outside Maryland, has some pull when it counts.

"My strength as a legislator is that I'm a strong institutional guy. I believe in institutions, even when they don't work very well. I understand the rules that make an institution work," Ehrlich says. "Often that means voting with leadership. You can't be a free agent all the time."

According to those who have worked with Ehrlich in Washington, this self-portrait is accurate. Ask anyone - friend or foe - to name a particular policy or bill associated with Ehrlich, and they tend to draw a blank.

In eight years, Ehrlich has sponsored only 28 bills and resolutions, while Maryland's other members of Congress each sponsored at least twice that number in the same period. Some colleagues say he hasn't left much of a footprint.

Rather, the high-level connections Ehrlich has forged and the power structure into which he has skillfully inserted himself have been the hallmark of his congressional career.

Those traits could serve a prospective governor better than a long list of legislative victories, said Tony Caligiuri, spokesman for Rep. Constance A. Morella and former aide to Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest - both Republicans.

"It's an extraordinary asset, as governor, to be able to pick up the phone and call key members of Congress whenever he needs, or to be able to get the president when you need him," Caligiuri said. "In government, these relationships mean everything."

The early years

Ehrlich had been an ambitious young member of the Maryland House of Delegates for eight years when Rep. Helen Delich Bentley announced that she was dropping her 2nd District congressional seat - representing northern and eastern Baltimore County, Harford County and a slice of Anne Arundel County - to run for governor. Ehrlich, then 36, leapt to replace her.

He signed on to the Contract With America and got help raising money from then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who stumped for him in Baltimore County. Ehrlich beat Del. Gerry L. Brewster in 1994 with 63 percent of the vote. He has been re-elected with about 70 percent of the vote ever since.

During his early years in Annapolis, Ehrlich was known as a bright, hard-working lawyer who cared about policy and worked easily with Democrats.

Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a Baltimore Democrat and colleague on the House Judiciary Committee, considered Ehrlich a solid moderate with a libertarian streak.

But Ehrlich's ideology seemed to change when Ellen R. Sauerbrey became House minority leader. He and his fellow Republicans drifted to the right under her watch, Montague says - and he watched the same thing happen when Ehrlich went to Congress.

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