The Choice

Ehrlich: He's risen from a blue-collar neighborhood to work alongside Washington conservative heavyweights.

Election 2002

October 27, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

A year ago, says Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., people told him he was crazy. Nuts, they said, to give up a safe congressional seat and take on a Kennedy in one of America's most Democrat-dominated states. Delusional to think he could compete with a candidate who already had collected millions in campaign donations.

"Nobody says that to me today," Ehrlich said recently.

Why would they? For months, despite a less than sparkling debate performance and outcry over his anti-gun control record as a deadly sniper roamed the Washington suburbs, Ehrlich has been tied in the polls with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. And he's raised $8.6 million.

The explanation for this is a complex political cocktail involving early dissatisfaction with Townsend's campaign and with her boss of eight years, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, whose legacy includes a $1.7 billion budget shortfall. But the poll numbers also reflect that Ehrlich's campaign message has caught on to some extent.

"It's time for a change" has been the theme of his speeches and advertisements. In a state where Democrats have held the governor's office for more than 34 years, the slogan is instantly understood.

More than almost any other aspect of his platform, Ehrlich has emphasized the change he says he would bring to Annapolis, using phrases such as "culture of corruption" and "arrogance of power" to describe the sitting administration and some legislators.

"For 16 years I've been known as an ethical legislator. My reputation in that regard is spotless," he said.

To back up his corruption rhetoric, Ehrlich points to calls Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and other Democratic lawmakers placed to Maryland's top judges weighing a redistricting lawsuit. He also talks of Glendening angling for the $375,000-a-year job as chancellor of the University of Maryland, to be selected by the Board of Regents he appointed.

"I think that's played up for Bobby very, very well," said Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus of Somerset. "One of the things that people are getting is that he brings a clean slate. People privately - even Democrats - are very frustrated with Glendening, and some of that has rubbed off on Kathleen. They just don't like him. And you win or lose on whether people like you, frankly."

Even his critics concede that people generally do like Ehrlich, whose easy, jocular style helped deliver his message. His hometown-boy story of blue-to-white-collar ascendancy helps as well.

"I think it means a great deal to people in Harford County," said Del. Charles R. Boutin, former mayor of Aberdeen. "He's got good, basic family core values."

Ehrlich was born in Baltimore County's working-class neighborhood of Arbutus, the only son of a car salesman and a secretary. His grit on the football field led to a scholarship at the Gilman School. From there he went to Princeton University, and then to law school.

"He's a likable guy. He's running on imagery rather than issues and his one big theme is change," said Paul S. Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland. "He's very conservative, particularly for Maryland. But he's conservative without the vitriol of Tom DeLay and Newt Gingrich, so it's very easy to make the assumption that because he's nice, he's moderate."

Townsend has built her campaign partly on Ehrlich's record, relentlessly reminding the public that he voted to eliminate the Department of Education, to lift the federal ban on assault weapons, to reduce spending increases sought by Democrats in the areas of Medicare, Head Start and other programs that benefit the poor and frail.

With a few exceptions, Ehrlich's eight-year congressional record has been conservative, in almost perfect synch with Republican priorities.

Legislation has not been the hallmark of his congressional career. Ehrlich himself says he is most proud of his advocacy for the blind, which has not gained much notice. But his party loyalty allowed him to rise within the GOP leadership, become close friends with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, and gain membership to a high-powered congressional committee and to an elite corps of House whips.

His position in Congress, he says, will prove useful if he's governor as he tries to secure more federal money for Maryland for programs such as Medicare. "I've been joking about how I'm not giving up my office on Capitol Hill," he said. "I've already talked to the speaker about it."

Since announcing his run for governor, Ehrlich has spoken rather infrequently about his congressional record, instead pushing a moderate platform tailored to appeal not only to his core constituents - Republicans and conservative Democrats - but to African-Americans and other groups traditionally hostile to the GOP.

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