Ehrlich 'missed being part of the debate'

Former governor appears ready to declare himself in the race

  • Ehrlich with son Drew, 10, at a Little League game in Crownsville. Dad played football at Princeton.
Ehrlich with son Drew, 10, at a Little League game in Crownsville.… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
March 28, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz | julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

Maryland's last governor, who followed two decades in elected office by opening a Baltimore branch of a law firm and hosting a radio talk show, is tired of life on the sidelines.

Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s daily routine has, in recent months, become increasingly like a campaign. Within weeks, many expect he will announce that he'll run against Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who defeated him in November 2006.

"I have missed being part of the debate. I have been frustrated by the policy decisions in Annapolis and on Capitol Hill," Ehrlich said. "The radio show, the speeches and all that - I can get my message out there. But in this business, you're either in or you're out."

The chances of his return to power - while no sure bet in a deeply blue state - seem as good as ever since his lone election loss. Less than two years after President Barack Obama carried Maryland by a huge margin and the state's congressional delegation went from 80 percent Democratic to 90 percent, Ehrlich, 52, appears ready to ride an anti-incumbent surge as far as it will take him.

When Maryland voters replaced Ehrlich after one term, he and his wife, Kendel Ehrlich, and their two small boys packed up the governor's mansion and moved three miles away to a $750,000 house. He took a job as a "rainmaker" for Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, a North Carolina-based law firm that was expanding its Mid-Atlantic presence. He and Kendel signed on to host a Saturday talk show on WBAL.

He has spent most every Saturday coaching and supporting his 10-year-old son Drew's football, baseball and basketball teams. Josh, 6, just began playing baseball this year. Ehrlich, who was co-captain of the Princeton University football team, said he believes athletics could help insulate the boys from a potentially bruising campaign by "focusing them on something other than what their parents are doing."

A congenial magnet
A graduate of Wake Forest Law School in Winston-Salem, N.C. who once worked for the Maryland firm Ober/Kaler, Ehrlich quickly returned to the law. He chose Womble Carlyle.

The job description, Ehrlich said, is to be "the face of the firm." His duties include "speeches, coffees, dinners, lunches, meetings."

Ehrlich brought with him a cadre of top aides - keeping together the team that directed his communications strategy in the State House. Other Womble employees with ties to Ehrlich include David Hamilton, a former Ober colleague and his personal attorney while governor; former deputy chief of staff Edward B. Miller and former counsel J.P. Scholtes.

Ehrlich said Womble gave him two years to become profitable. That first year, in a slow economy, he said, was "tough." As a rainmaker, he said, "I wasn't exactly sure what to do."

But by the end of the trial period, Ehrlich said, the Baltimore office had become "quite profitable." It has grown from three to 10 attorneys and has 12 other employees. They've moved from temporary space in Linthicum to a spread with a commanding view of Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Keith Vaughan, Womble's managing partner in Winston-Salem, said Ehrlich has been "a real magnet" for recruiting clients.

"He has been central to the development of our Baltimore office, which is making good progress," Vaughan said, adding that Ehrlich is low-maintenance and congenial. The firm, he said, understood when it hired Ehrlich that "there may come a time when he decided to once again enter the public arena as a candidate."

Ehrlich wouldn't disclose his office's financial details, including his salary, saying that information is "above my pay grade." Vaughan also declined to reveal what the former governor earns.

No one in the office is a registered lobbyist in Maryland or Washington, and Ehrlich is not listed as an attorney on any Maryland case. Ehrlich said he has no clients with state contracts. "You would really not want to hire us to do business with the state of Maryland," he said, laughing, a reference to the state's overwhelmingly Democratic political leadership.

Henry Fawell, who serves as Ehrlich's spokesman at Womble as he did in the State House, said financial companies, including SunTrust Bank and Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, and medical companies such as Precision Antibodies and A&G Pharmaceutical are among the office's clients.

Democrats have already raised issues with the intersection of Ehrlich's life at Womble and his potential candidacy.

Party Chairwoman Susan Turnbull wrote to the State Board of Elections this month complaining that the law office is "serving as the de facto campaign headquarters" without disclosing it as an in-kind contribution.

Vaughan said Womble's employees "do not work on a clock" and that many, an even split of Democrats and Republicans, are politically active.

"Everyone is expected to do a professional job and get work done," he said. "If the time they spend helping a candidate is during the day or the evening, we don't worry about that."

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