Occasion for GOP jubilation

Guests: Friends and family join the new governor in gleeful celebration of the party's new power.

The Inauguration Of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

January 16, 2003|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. waited outside the doors to the packed Senate chamber in Annapolis yesterday just seconds before he was to be sworn in as Maryland's 60th governor. Unable to stand still, he clasped his hands before him, bowed his head, and rocked back and forth, toe to heel. Everyone was very quiet.

"Hey, you look good from the back," said U.S. Rep. Melissa A. Hart, a Pennsylvania Republican and one of Ehrlich's buddies from Congress. ("I tease him all the time. I can't help it," she added.)

At times, yesterday's inauguration of the first Republican administration in Maryland since Spiro T. Agnew was elected in 1966 seemed equal parts solemn ceremony and GOP shindig.

Although state officials from both parties insisted the day symbolized unity, Republicans both local and national could barely control their still-fresh glee over finally winning the governorship.

"It's hard to contain myself," said a beaming James "Chip" DiPaula Jr., Ehrlich's campaign manager and budget secretary nominee.

"When you're in the business of politics, it's the ultimate high," added former Tennessee Sen. William E. Brock, who ran against U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes in 1994.

Before walking into the Senate, Ehrlich leaned over to Hart and other close friends from Congress who were about to join him in the chamber. "This many Republicans have never been in here, ever," he crowed.

An hour earlier, the congressional group, which included Reps. George P. Radanovich of California, Richard "Doc" Hastings of Washington, Rob Portman of Ohio, Michael Patrick Flanagan of Illinois and former Indiana Rep. David M. McIntosh, got a private tour of Ehrlich's new office on the second floor of the State House.

"I hope he gets to put up new wallpaper," someone said, noting the fade marks that framed departing Gov. Parris N. Glendening's recently removed pictures.

"I thought about not coming," said Portman. "But this is also historic for us, for a colleague to succeed in what seemed like an insurmountable challenge, and to prevail." Portman was among those who called Ehrlich from the House cloakroom last week to razz him about his absence.

Former Rep. Rick A. Lazio also flew in, from New York. "For me, this is the biggest win in the country," he said. It felt all the more satisfying in light of his own loss to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. "I think he ran a better race than we did," he said. "He made people confident that he was going to govern from the center."

Some of the visitors wrote messages on Ehrlich's desk blotter ("Love the office ... but not your colors! We'll work on it. Love Edie and George Radanovich") and made cracks about his private bathroom, which contains a fire extinguisher.

Also tucked into the blotter was an envelope addressed, "Gov. Ehrlich."

"That was from me to him, personally wishing him well," said Glendening, who attended a reception in his own former reception room for the new governor.

The two talked by telephone a few days ago, and Glendening advised Ehrlich to have his staff document the next few months very carefully, "because between today and the parties and the budget and the fights with the legislature, it's going to be an absolute blur," he said. "I told him it's not going to be until about June that you realize you're governor."

Democrats did their best yesterday to push aside any stings lingering from the campaign, proclaiming themselves eager to work with the new governor and confident in his abilities.

Only Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, who championed Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's candidacy, allowed a crack of regret. "Obviously I'm smiling on the outside and crying on the inside," he said.

Others, such as Nancy Ehrlich, the governor's mother, shed real tears as her son was sworn in. "He's the kind of son everyone wishes they had," she said later.

Even Robert L. Ehrlich Sr. admitted to a few tears. "An ex-Marine's not supposed to cry," he whispered as he walked toward the post-inauguration parade between two lines of state police troopers.

After the Senate ceremony, the Ehrlichs and other dignitaries went outside for a second, more public swearing-in, with speeches and singing and bunting and a 19-gun salute into the freezing air.

Over the speakers, however, the crowd could hear the distant chants of at least 50 anti-death penalty activists protesting Ehrlich's decision to lift the state moratorium on executions.

Among them was Shujaa Graham, who sat on California's death row before being exonerated. "The death penalty is racist," Graham said, referring to a recently released study pointing out racial disparities in the way death sentences are meted out here.

Although they didn't know it, the group had an advocate on the inauguration platform with the new governor. Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said yesterday that he is calling for Ehrlich to continue the moratorium.

"I think we need to take a long, hard look at this study," he said. "Especially when seven people could be eligible for execution by June."

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