Political wife, and a lot more

Smart and strong-willed, first lady is a central figure

April 23, 2006|By DAVID NITKIN | DAVID NITKIN,SUN REPORTER

When Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. strode out of the governor's mansion for a crucial announcement on electricity rates last week, he was accompanied by some of his most trusted advisers: his chief of staff, his lieutenant governor and his wife.

First lady Kendel Ehrlich has no formal policy role in the administration but often joins the governor for important events, from Cabinet meetings to negotiating sessions to news conferences such as the Thursday event, which was carried live on local television stations.

Kendel Ehrlich did not speak when her husband announced the result of sensitive negotiations with Constellation Energy Group. But she stood at his elbow, eyes trained on her spouse.

"Her presence reminds people that they are in this together," said Carol L. Hirschburg, a Republican consultant who is helping organize a women's rally for the governor next month at the state fairgrounds in Timonium featuring the first lady. "She's a sounding board for the governor. He has a great deal of respect for her intellect and judgment. She is without a doubt his biggest supporter. While I don't think she is making policy, she certainly has input through the governor."

But several Annapolis observers said they were puzzled by Kendel Ehrlich's attendance at the electricity rate announcement.

"It just seemed to me to be an inappropriate place for the wife of the governor, unless she had some role in him developing or finalizing the agreement," said state Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld, a Montgomery County Democrat, adding that the first lady should not be involved in discussions on the electricity issue.

"She's not an elected official. She's the wife of the governor," Grosfeld said. "I don't think that qualifies a person to be involved in public policymaking."

Through a spokesman, the first lady declined an interview for this article. Spokesman Derek J. Fink said he would not comment on Kendel Ehrlich's role in the administration. The governor's office also declined to comment.

With Ehrlich facing a competitive re-election campaign that will rely heavily on support from women and moderate voters, the first lady could soon become a visible presence on the campaign trail, political experts say.

Her role, in part, will be to help the governor with a problem that troubles many Republicans: a sharp difference in support between men and women voters, known as a gender gap.

In a survey released last week by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies, women voters backed Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, by 51 percent to 37 percent in a potential head-to-head match-up with the governor, while male voters supported the governor by a 45 percent to 41 percent spread. Other polls have shown similar gaps.

"He needs to be seen in the presence of women, because otherwise he is pretty much surrounded by men," said Matthew Crenson, chairman of the political science department at the Johns Hopkins University. "She goes with him to campaign events and things like that. Their kids are always around. It appeals to women, and it appeals to pro-family conservatives."

Tall and tan, with a bright smile and an outgoing personality, Kendel Sibiski Ehrlich, 44, is already a popular speaker at Republican functions and other events.

A lawyer, her resume includes stints as a public defender, prosecutor in Harford County, and consultant and attorney for Comcast, the cable company. And as the mother of two small children, she is juggling work and family life like hundreds of thousands of other Maryland women.

Current and past members of the Ehrlich administration describe her as fiercely loyal to her husband and intensely desirous of her husband's re-election. Many officials -- notably Comptroller William Donald Schaefer -- work hard to stay on her good side. She is also tough on staffers whom she views as not performing up to snuff, having clashed with the governor's former chief of staff, and helping prompt his departure.

On Friday, during the governor's first major policy speech after the conclusion of the legislative session, Ehrlich told an anecdote -- as his wife looked on -- that illustrated just how seriously she takes the election.

The couple's older son, Drew, 6, came home recently after losing a game of schoolyard kickball, the governor said. A teacher tried to comfort him by saying it didn't matter if he won or lost, but that he played the game.

"He relayed this story to Mommy and Daddy, and Mommy and Daddy were outraged," said Ehrlich, a former Princeton University football captain married to a former co-captain of the Dulaney High School lacrosse team. "Mommy said to him, `Let me put this in context for you. If we don't win, we don't live in this house anymore.'"

Some lawmakers say Kendel Ehrlich has ventured from political speeches and fundraisers into policy decisions.

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