Ehrlich, Steele offer GOP primer for youth

Children's event launches inaugural festivities

January 12, 2003|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

The Little Engine That Could wasn't just a children's story yesterday at the first event to celebrate the inauguration of Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Read with gusto by the state's soon-to-be-chief executive, it was a tale of a party exulting in its rise to power.

Ehrlich and his running mate, Michael S. Steele, kicked off five days of inaugural events with a children's festival, complete with a mock swearing-in and gubernatorial story time. The young visitors, many the children of supporters, ate cotton candy and popcorn from old-fashioned stands, frolicked in a moon bounce and watched a blue-haired clown twist balloons into poodles.

About 350 children registered for the free event at Howard Community College. One of them was Julia Wooldridge, 3, whose father, Russell Wooldridge, when asked whether she is a Republican, said, "Oh, of course."

Wooldridge had brought his daughter to celebrate the GOP's first ascension to the top of the State House in 36 years.

"I think that it's an opportunity for our party to show the state what good government can be," he said. At Julia's feet was a goodie bag filled with stickers, T-shirts and a children's book about a crab who fights pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

For their parts, Ehrlich and Steele - dressed casually in event T-shirts, as were their wives and children - seemed relaxed and ready for the parties to provide momentary distraction from the $1.8 billion state budget shortfall that will face them when they take office Wednesday.

"This is a great kickoff to the next four years - celebrating our families and our kids," said Steele, who attended with his wife, Andrea, and sons Drew and Michael.

Ehrlich mused about the changes in his lifestyle: the pending move from his Mays Chapel townhouse to the governor's mansion in Annapolis; the security detail that accompanies him everywhere.

"Suddenly, I'm keyless," he said, laughing. "I have no need for keys."

Leading their son, Drew, 3, through the activities, Kendel Ehrlich promised to be a "fun" first lady.

The Steeles read a book called A Whistle for Willie, which celebrates the persistence of a boy who finally learned to whistle for his dog. But the greatest applause came when the governor-elect launched an animated reading of The Little Engine That Could, which he called a metaphor for his upstart campaign.

"I think I can, I think I can," puffed Ehrlich, as his son displayed the book's pictures to the crowd. He described the little blue train's arduous climb, "until at last they reached the top of the mountain - otherwise known as Nov. 5 around here."

Although the crowd overall seemed enthusiastically supportive of the new administration, it wasn't composed solely of Republicans. Robin Toler, medical director of a Baltimore mental health clinic and a Democrat from Columbia, brought her four children to have fun and learn about government.

Her daughter Larrin, 13, said she will be watching how Ehrlich handles issues in public education. "I'm glad they're letting our age group be part of this," she said.

One Democrat got a taste of his party's new outsider status. Freshman Howard County Del. Neil F. Quinter had difficulty getting his 6-year-old daughter, Jessica, into a room where children and their parents were greeting the governor-elect.

"He's a very popular guy these days," Quinter said later. "I just came out to pay my respects to the governor, and welcome him to the county."

For the Ehrlichs, some things hadn't changed.

At a giant inflatable slide, Drew Ehrlich still had to wait his turn. And his mother, holding his shoes, still monitored his progress through the slide amid a crush of other children, just to make sure he was all right.

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