The Life Of The Party

After 36 years of toil, GOP loyalists once again take their place at the ball.

January 16, 2003|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

It was 5 p.m. when people streamed into David Blumberg's house on Falls Road, a sea of red glitter and black silk gowns. They had worked years for this night, often fruitlessly, and they did not arrive empty-handed; they offered casseroles, wine, and trays of desserts.

The celebration was about to begin.

But first Blumberg ran back upstairs to find a spare bow tie and an extra stud for two of his fellow Republicans. "We'll get better at this as time goes on," he joked.

This was the day they had hoped for, prayed for, and never allowed themselves to think would arrive: the inaugural of a Republican governor. After all the losses they'd suffered together in the Republican trenches, emerging each time as half-crazed loners in a city dominated by Democrats, they wanted to celebrate in an intimate gathering.

The buffet tables were elegantly set, and the house filled with the smells of the feast before them. All week, Ellie Wang, another devoted Republican and Blumberg's wife, had prepped her Chinese specialties and famous salmon. Their friend and fellow partisan, Carol L. Hirschburg, had labored hours in the kitchen, preparing tenderloin of beef. At the bar, champagne flowed.

Dinner was the evening's first stop, to be followed by the inaugural ball. It had taken 36 years, but finally, they had a place at the table.

These were the people who could say they knew Bob Ehrlich when: Hirschburg had once shared a beach house with him and his wife. Wang had cooked for his victory party. Blumberg, just moments before his wedding, had embraced his friend.

Some of the 30 guests at the Blumberg home last night had worked for the GOP for a quarter century. When Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced he was quitting Congress to run for governor, they winced. Not because they didn't like him; they did, but because they couldn't stand another loss.

The pre-ball dinner was Blumberg's idea. After 16 years as Republican Party chairman in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, he felt great joy and relief. He felt vindicated, really, though he wasn't gloating. He knew better. It has been 40 years since a Republican was elected mayor, 65 since one was elected to the City Council, his own try as futile as all the others.

For 29 years, Blumberg had knocked on doors, starting with the campaign of U.S. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias in 1974. He'd managed or been involved in 100 campaigns and could claim only four or five wins.

He knew how to steel himself. Kicked in the tail so often, he couldn't allow himself to think of victory. But defeat in this campaign would have been crushing. He was never more emotionally involved. He had known Ehrlich a long time, not just in politics, but as a friend. This was it: A candidate like him represented the GOP's greatest opportunity. Blumberg pushed himself to knock on doors, work the phones, accompany the candidate to the Fells Point festival. Many nights, though, he told his wife that this campaign would be his last; he couldn't take any more losses.

It scared him, trying to imagine a life without politics. On Election Day, when a reporter asked him a question before the outcome was known, he had started to cry. Naturally, then, he wanted to celebrate the big win with the people who had shared all the pain, too.

In the kitchen, Wang was slicing tenderloin. She loves to entertain, and she had staged a post-election party for Ehrlich the weekend before Thanksgiving. Her husband told Ehrlich at the party that the day of his election stood as the best day of his own life. Ehrlich corrected him: No, David, second best. Marrying Ellie was the best day of your life.

How could she not like such a guy? Gladly, she had taken her physical therapist clients, some of them unable to walk, to the polls on Election Day, never asking them how they would vote. And now, happily, she presided over the stove and over the beginning of a glorious night.

"It's such a wonderful celebration. We don't know what to expect. We haven't been through this before, but it's a way for the old guard, the Republicans who have worked so long, to celebrate," she said.

Hours earlier, she had dressed in a black jacket and long black skirt trimmed in fuschia. For days, she and her friends had talked about what to wear. A last-minute shopping spree had sent her back to the comfort of her own closet.

The strains of "I'm a Believer," by the Monkees, filled the dining room. The selection dated to 1966, the last time a Republican was elected governor.

In strolled Bob Scholz, a lawyer at Niles, Barton and Wilmer and a fund-raiser for Ehrlich. A central committee chairman in the mid-1980s, he had dropped back to fund-raising since the 1998 defeat of Ellen Sauerbrey, the low point for him. Four years earlier, he had run Richard D. Bennett's failed campaign for attorney general. "I enjoyed every single minute of it, but tonight most of all," he said.

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