Driven to lead, split by beliefs

Candidates for governor forged leadership styles through trial, error of political office

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Fiercely competitive, slow to compromise

Maryland Votes 2006

Gubernatorial Race

October 29, 2006|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun Reporter

When Bob Ehrlich decided to give up a safe congressional seat to run for governor, he was hoping for a homecoming.

The idea of shaping state policy, thwarting liberal Democrats and building a two-party system in Maryland was appealing, but what really got him to put his heart in the race was the memory of what Annapolis had been like in 1987 when, as a 28-year-old, he first took his seat in the House of Delegates.

He remembers getting taken in by some of the old-school legislators - Democrats, mostly - who taught him to respect the institution and its systems, who brought him into the back room to hash out the details of legislation.

He remembers going out with the boys at night, having dinner, playing basketball. He met Kendel Sibiski, a public defender who would become his wife and political ally, and he figured out what kind of politician he would be.

But when Delegate Bobby returned as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., nothing would be the same.

"You can't go home again," he said in a recent interview. "You just can't."

It has been no homecoming, and partisans on both sides have spent nearly the entire term blaming each other for years of tension and gridlock on slot machine gambling, tort reform and other issues. But the stalemate has produced a more complete picture of Bob Ehrlich.

He is still the genial, regular guy he was as a delegate, someone who puts giant inflatable pumpkins on his lawn for Halloween and suits up with the Orioles for batting practice. But through the struggles of the last four years, he has shown himself above all to be a fierce competitor who would rather lose a tough battle than compromise for a partial win.

Ehrlich says he's running for re-election on his record, and when asked, he can rattle off a page's worth of accomplishments, some major, some mundane. But that belies what has been in many ways a painful four years that has forced him to adjust his expectations for what being governor would be like.

"I made a major miscalculation. I thought I could revisit my days as a delegate as governor," Ehrlich said. "Something was different. I was treated differently."

During his first legislative session, just days after he took the oath of office, Ehrlich invited legislators over to eat pizza and watch sports, and he showed up for Thursday night basketball games.

But he found that the same guys who ate his pizza one night would trash his legislative agenda the next day. On the basketball court, he wasn't one of the guys anymore. And things definitely weren't the same now that his buddy, Delegate Mike from Annapolis, a guy who was once one of his best friends in the legislature, had become House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

Ehrlich repeatedly saw his signature initiative, slot machine gambling, foiled in the legislature - mostly at Busch's hands - and watched as record numbers of his vetoes were overridden. The legislature went off in a direction of its own as if there were no governor.

As Ehrlich and his supporters see it, there was nothing he could have done differently to change things. They believe that Democratic legislators were simply not willing to allow a Republican governor to wield so much power.

"No way," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the minority whip from Southern Maryland and one of Ehrlich's staunchest supporters. "This legislature has just bent over backwards to embarrass and stymie and stifle the governor."

But others say there's more to it than that. They say the issue is not just that the governor is a Republican but that he seems more interested in setting up us vs. them battles than putting in the work to forge consensus.

Del. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said he thought at first that Ehrlich was skipping the basketball games because he couldn't sink his jump shots. But he came to conclude that Ehrlich couldn't accept that legislators wouldn't go along with everything he wanted.

"It's not personal," Zirkin said. "But I think at some point in time the administration just started taking it personally."

Viewing life in terms of competition is not new for Ehrlich. From his childhood, it is what has pushed him ahead.

He grew up in an apartment off of Maiden Choice Lane in southwestern Baltimore County and then in a three-bedroom rowhouse in Arbutus. He is the son of a used-car salesman and a legal secretary, and the family never moved because Bob Sr. wasn't sure from year to year if the commissions would be enough to cover a bigger mortgage.

But Ehrlich's tenacity on the football field marked him as different from other kids in that working-class community. At age 13, he was so competitive that he was playing in a league with 17- to 20-year-olds.

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