Making themselves right at home

Ehrlich, Steele start inaugural week with hometown events

January 13, 2003|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Calling yesterday "home and home day," Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and incoming Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele began their inaugural week on familiar turf where they were cheered by throngs of supporters three days before they will be sworn in to lead Maryland's new administration.

Starting in Prince George's County at Steele's parish, the men and their families attended morning Mass at a crowded St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Landover Hills, before heading to Arbutus, Ehrlich's hometown, for a street parade in the subfreezing winter chill.

"It's great for a hometown boy to be where he's at," said Neil McLaughlin, 53, an Arbutus plumber, as he nodded at Ehrlich speaking to the crowd on a makeshift stage.

Everyone at the Baltimore County parade, it seemed, knew Ehrlich or had a story about someone else who knows him.

"He grew up with my younger brother," said McLaughlin, who was holding a hand-written cardboard sign reading "Bob Ehrlich, Jr., The richest guy in town."

Parade watcher Katherine Peterson, 75, said she, too, was within a degree or two of separation from the governor-elect.

"My daughter used to live on Bobby's street," Peterson said.

Arbutus was bedecked with Ehrlich posters and signs, and bundled-up volunteers passed out bottled water with labels akin to the blue Ehrlich bumper stickers. Even the town movie house, the Hollywood, displayed on its marquee, "Congratulations Gov. Elect Ehrlich."

Ehrlich gave back the love yesterday as enthusiastically as he received it.

"People keep trying to figure out what I'm about," Ehrlich told them. "To understand my life, please understand this town."

Ehrlich and Steele wore bright yellow-and-red athletic jackets emblazoned with Arbutus A.A. that the athletic association had given them. And as an added honor, it was announced that Ehrlich's Arbutus football number - 51 - would be retired.

"I don't know what to say, which is unusual for me," Ehrlich said.

Earlier in the day at the church service, the Rev. J. William Hines asked that Ehrlich and Steele be "blessed with wisdom and compassion" as they lead state government.

Steele, his wife, Andrea, and their two sons, Michael, 14, and Drew, 11, were gift bearers for the morning Mass.

Steele, who once considered becoming a member of the clergy, has said that faith has played a major role in shaping his political philosophy on social issues.

"The fact that we began this administration with prayer is important," Steele said after the ceremony. "We're grappling with some serious challenges. This administration has to be mindful of that and prepared."

The basement of the church was teeming with people from the media, and the two men held a brief news conference as hundreds of church members looked on and whispered.

"It's strange having a press conference in a church," Ehrlich said before launching into issues such as his defense of the death penalty.

Fielding questions, Ehrlich said he knows that many African-Americans are hesitant to support him because he is a Republican, even though his lieutenant governor is black.

"We understand there may be people who view us with suspicious eyes," Ehrlich said. "We are going to try to be inclusive. That does not mean trying to please everyone. Politicians do that, leaders don't."

Betty Alley, 52, who lives in Chesapeake Beach, drove 45 minutes to St. Mary's to glimpse Ehrlich, and maybe get a chance to congratulate him.

The lifelong Republican followed him around the room as he signed autographs and almost got his attention several times. Finally, seconds before he left, she shook his hand. She walked away beaming.

"I told him," Alley said. "I would pray for his administration."

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