Picture awkward moments

At the unveiling of official portraits in Annapolis, political rivals are, again, front and center

June 04, 2008|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,Sun reporter

The two first ladies wore nearly identical dresses, and that wasn't the most awkward moment.

The dress incident happened last night at the unveiling of the portraits of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and first lady Kendel Ehrlich - a time-honored tradition in Annapolis.

Such events can take on the tenor of officialdom, a passing of batons between administrations, but usually they don't involve rival politicians widely viewed to be headed for a rematch. This year's event took on the tenor of a political rally for Ehrlich, as the current governor, Martin O'Malley, watched from the front row.

"It's a Kodak moment, that's for sure," said Kevin Kelly, an Allegany County Democrat who broke ranks in 2006 and endorsed Ehrlich. O'Malley defeated Ehrlich in the last election.

More than 600 supporters, campaign donors and politicians attended the event at an auditorium at St. John's College. Portrait ceremonies usually take place at the State House and are much smaller affairs. Because that building is under renovation, the event was moved to the larger venue. A large screen showed a montage of photos featuring the Ehrlichs, and his former Cabinet took up a row near the stage.

There were other notably awkward moments, such as when people in the crowd, pining for the return of the GOP, shouted, "Four more years," for Ehrlich before he spoke, and when Ed Norris, a radio talk show host, took the stage as the emcee.

Norris served as Baltimore's police commissioner when O'Malley was mayor but left amid reports of acrimony with the administration. He was appointed state police superintendent by Ehrlich and resigned when he was indicted on federal corruption and tax charges.

As for the first ladies, who were both wearing cream, cap-sleeved dresses, Katie O'Malley decided to make light of the situation. "Obviously, we have very good taste," she said after seeing Kendel Ehrlich take the stage.

Ehrlich, a Republican, deflected questions about whether he would run in 2010, saying the occasion was about the past, not the future. But he regularly throws barbs at O'Malley during his radio talk show, and O'Malley, a Democrat, frequently says that he has inherited problems from the previous administration.

When asked before the event whether he and Ehrlich have seen each other since the election, O'Malley said, "Lots of people worked very hard to make this day possible, and Katie and I feel very honored just to be a part of it." O'Malley didn't elaborate, walking away from reporters.

The occasion for them to be in each other's company might never have happened. O'Malley, causing a stir among politicos, at first declined the invitation to the event, which sitting governors typically attend. O'Malley later accepted, and his handlers explain the turnaround as a matter of scheduling conflicts that were resolved.

Ehrlich had a contentious relationship with the Democratic-controlled General Assembly during his four years in office. But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, for one, said that he respected the former governor even through they aren't "bosom buddies."

"We're just happy to be invited," said Miller, a Democrat. "At the same time, I hope we don't get booed."

While Ehrlich works for the Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice law firm, he has kept himself in the public eye. He and his wife host a weekly radio talk show on WBAL-AM during which they have discussed the presidential election and deregulation of energy markets, which some blame for higher electricity rates that have been a potent political topic. Ehrlich also contributes as a news analyst and commentator to Baltimore's WMAR-TV.

Meanwhile, Ehrlich has continued to amass campaign funds. His campaign account logged more than $114,000 in contributions last year after he sent letters to supporters asking for money.

Richard Hug, a Republican fundraiser who helped to raise record sums for Ehrlich, said last night's event demonstrated Ehrlich can still draw a crowd. "It shows a lot of people here miss Bob Ehrlich; this is quite an outpouring," Hug said.

Robert Ehrlich's portrait will hang in the governor's reception room in the State House, the nation's oldest, and Kendel Ehrlich's portrait will be in Government House, the state-run residence of the governor and his family across the street.

Gubernatorial portraiture has been a tradition in Maryland dating back to the state's first governor, Thomas Johnson, but portraits of Colonial governors and earlier landowners have also been collected, said Edward C. Papenfuse, the state archivist.

Only the most recent governors can fit in the reception room one floor above the General Assembly chambers. In fact, to make room for Ehrlich's portrait, the painting of former Gov. Harry W. Nice, a Republican who served in the 1930s, will have to be moved.

Ehrlich's portrait was done by Will Wilson, a friend who has studios in San Francisco and Catonsville and who graduated from the Schuler School of Fine Arts in Baltimore. Moe Hanson, an Annapolis artist, painted the former first lady's portrait.

While the artists also took the stage last night to talk about the portraits, politics wasn't far behind. When Wilson hinted that he might be back to paint a second portrait for another term, the crowd broke into applause.

laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

Laura Vozzella contributed to this article.

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