Ehrlich defined by time in halls, not on the floor
By By Sarah Koenig
Oct 16, 2002 | 12:00 AM
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. glides past the guards with a quick "How ya doin'?" and swings open the doors to the private balcony of the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. The view is grand, sweeping down the front steps of the Capitol, across the reflecting pool and straight to the top of the Washington Monument.
"See?" he says, after considering one of the nation's most iconic swaths of architecture. "There are advantages to being in the majority party."
During his eight years in Congress, Ehrlich, 44, has blossomed within the Republican caucus, gaining membership in an elite group of whips, becoming a close friend of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, maneuvering himself onto a top committee and generally earning a reputation as a fellow to watch.
Since he began campaigning for governor, Ehrlich has talked little of his congressional career, focusing instead on his ideas for running Maryland. But his record has been a prominent part of the race as his opponent, Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, has broadcast certain votes as proof that he is "too conservative for Maryland."
Ehrlich has billed himself as a moderate, and his campaign Web site stresses topics on which he has broken from his party. "Unafraid to exert his independence when necessary, Bob has taken a number of positions - opposing term limits, supporting a woman's right to choose and backing strong environmental protections - that have put him at odds with the House leadership," the site says.
In fact, Ehrlich's career on Capitol Hill has advanced because of near-unwavering loyalty to the party leadership. In his first year in Washington, he voted with the Republican majority 90 percent of the time.
By his own admission, Erhlich has not primarily used his talents to shape national policy or even write legislation. He rarely speaks on the House floor or appears before the television cameras.
His strength lies in helping make things happen - no small feat in a fiercely partisan body of 435 lawmakers - by clever politicking and the irrepressible force of a gregarious personality. As the brief tour of the speaker's suite demonstrates, Ehrlich is a behind-the-scenes actor who, although hardly a household name outside Maryland, has some pull when it counts.
"My strength as a legislator is that I'm a strong institutional guy. I believe in institutions, even when they don't work very well. I understand the rules that make an institution work," Ehrlich says. "Often that means voting with leadership. You can't be a free agent all the time."
According to those who have worked with Ehrlich in Washington, this self-portrait is accurate. Ask anyone - friend or foe - to name a particular policy or bill associated with Ehrlich, and they tend to draw a blank.
In eight years, Ehrlich has sponsored only 28 bills and resolutions, while Maryland's other members of Congress each sponsored at least twice that number in the same period. Some colleagues say he hasn't left much of a footprint.
Rather, the high-level connections Ehrlich has forged and the power structure into which he has skillfully inserted himself have been the hallmark of his congressional career.
Those traits could serve a prospective governor better than a long list of legislative victories, said Tony Caligiuri, spokesman for Rep. Constance A. Morella and former aide to Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest - both Republicans.
"It's an extraordinary asset, as governor, to be able to pick up the phone and call key members of Congress whenever he needs, or to be able to get the president when you need him," Caligiuri said. "In government, these relationships mean everything."
The early years
Ehrlich had been an ambitious young member of the Maryland House of Delegates for eight years when Rep. Helen Delich Bentley announced that she was dropping her 2nd District congressional seat - representing northern and eastern Baltimore County, Harford County and a slice of Anne Arundel County - to run for governor. Ehrlich, then 36, leapt to replace her.
He signed on to the Contract With America and got help raising money from then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who stumped for him in Baltimore County. Ehrlich beat Del. Gerry L. Brewster in 1994 with 63 percent of the vote. He has been re-elected with about 70 percent of the vote ever since.
During his early years in , Ehrlich was known as a bright, hard-working lawyer who cared about policy and worked easily with Democrats.
Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a Baltimore Democrat and colleague on the House Judiciary Committee, considered Ehrlich a solid moderate with a libertarian streak.
But Ehrlich's ideology seemed to change when Ellen R. Sauerbrey became House minority leader. He and his fellow Republicans drifted to the right under her watch, Montague says - and he watched the same thing happen when Ehrlich went to Congress.
"He got into that Gingrich crowd, and he moved dramatically to the right," Montague said. "I told him this. I said, 'You moved into that group over there.' And [Ehrlich] said, 'Well, what am I gonna do?'"
Ehrlich had been one of 25 Republicans in Maryland's 141-member House; if he wanted to do anything at all, he had to cooperate with the other side. But he suddenly became one of 73 GOP freshmen who swept into Washington on the crest of the first Republican congressional majority in 40 years. Those were the days of the self-proclaimed "Republican Revolution," and Ehrlich was one of its standard-bearers.
The 1995 freshmen quickly became a cohesive group, and they included few who had been state legislators. Ehrlich was a seasoned lawmaker by contrast, smart about how to win votes and whom to impress, said his friend and colleague, Rep. George P. Radanovich of California, a vintner.
"Bob would always give awfully good advice, where he could kind of point me in the right direction, or know when to go to the speaker and when not," he said.
Friends say Ehrlich has an unusual combination of political instinct, enthusiasm and down-to-earth intelligence that made other lawmakers seek his guidance. Former Indiana Rep. David M. McIntosh, a conservative Republican, remembers votes on defense appropriations bills that some freshmen were having trouble with.
"They were talking to Bob, and I remember he said, 'I'm always going to be voting for more guns and ammo.' He had that ability to be very principled, but he could also distill it to something that basic," McIntosh said. "I used to work for Ronald Reagan, and Bob reminds me of him in that way."
In committee, Ehrlich has helped shape bills on health care and mental health, telecommunications and small businesses. He worked on two bills, signed into law, that addressed the shortage of nurses and nurse's aides, and he sponsored a successful bill that protects people from being penalized for a spouse's tax debts after a divorce.
But Ehrlich never set out to change national policy on a grand scale.
Friends say he tends to use his leverage on issues that resonate back home. He chooses his battles strategically, they say, making sure he'll be noticed for his efforts either by the leadership or by the local media. "He's a very, very politically minded person," Caligiuri said. "He's really very good at being able to pick debates."
Ehrlich was a harsh critic of former Maryland U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia, for instance, whom he criticized for not prosecuting more gun crimes. And he frequently spoke out on what he considered the budgetary excesses of Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
Although Ehrlich helps out on local problems regarding the port of Baltimore, Aberdeen Proving Ground and the Chesapeake Bay, for example, Democratic Rep. Steny H. Hoyer and aides for other members of Congress say he has been sluggish to lend his aid at times and generally does not take a leading role on such issues.
Ehrlich, however, has paid attention to helping businesses. Early on, Ehrlich pestered a subcommittee chairman of the House Financial Services Committee to hold hearings around the state so that small-business constituents could talk about regulations that were hurting them.
Business considers him a friend, contributing between 90 percent and 97 percent of his political action committee money during each campaign cycle. Most of that has come from the financial, insurance and real estate sectors.
By all accounts, Ehrlich has been loyal to the party on every front; the few exceptions were often areas in which the party position would not wash in his district.
He supported almost every plank of Gingrich's Contract With America, including tax cuts, reduced regulations on business, presidential line-item veto power, and welfare reform through legislation that, among other measures, ended payments to unwed teen mothers.
He made news by proposing legislation that would have barred organizations, including nonprofit groups, that receive federal grants from using the money for lobbying.
Criticism poured in from Democrats and agencies, but Ehrlich defended his position, saying the money should be used to help people, not hire lobbyists.
Ehrlich, however, did go his own way on a few issues. He voted against term limits. In a nod to his constituents at the port of Baltimore, he opposed giving China "most-favored nation" trading status (a vote he repeated in 2000 despite the fact that his party had made its passage a priority). And Ehrlich was one of a handful of Republicans who refused to side with leadership on a vote to bring the GOP tax cut to the floor because it included a decrease in federal pension benefits.
'They all like him'
Although his Democratic colleagues may label him a conservative, Ehrlich is considered mainstream in his GOP caucus, mostly because of his belief in abortion rights.
Nevertheless, he became a prominent voice in the freshman class on what the party's overall strategy should be, and how discipline should be imposed. In meetings he spoke about the need to support party nominees regardless of whether they met the purity test more conservative members were seeking.
In 1998, Ehrlich and others met with Gingrich twice to propose that frequent Republican dissenters should lose their leadership positions in committees and subcommittees. The slim GOP majority that year meant almost every vote was crucial to furthering the party agenda. In an effort to rein in the "free agents," Ehrlich circulated a petition among his colleagues.
"Ehrlich had the conservative credentials with the party to say these things," said Bill Miller, a vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce who worked with Ehrlich on legislation. "Bob saw that winning was the most important thing."
As the braided black leather whips on his office wall attest, Ehrlich is part of a whipping team run by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay. When he is rounding up votes, he says he is respectful of philosophical differences but plays hardball. "If it's any other thing, if the person is lazy or doesn't want to operate outside of their comfort zone or is afraid to compete, I have no patience for that," he says.
Even Democrats say he is liked by virtually everyone, a characteristic whose advantages can't be underestimated in Congress.
On a visit to Capitol Hill last month, his conviviality was evident as he high-fived Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Maryland Democrat who is squarely in Townsend's camp.
"They all like him," Morella said. "He's built up the kind of respect which comes from affability. Especially with the guys, it really helps get your point across."
It has also helped him ascend the ladder in Congress. His successful maneuvering onto the House Energy and Commerce Committee is an example.
Ehrlich, first assigned to the House Financial Services Committee and later to the Budget Committee, had been angling to get on Energy and Commerce. Responsible for laws governing the nation's business, including energy and technology, the committee is considered a cash cow for those who serve on it. Ehrlich made it no secret that he wanted to fatten his campaign fund for a possible Senate run.
Before he ran for Congress, Ehrlich had met and charmed the future chairman of the committee, Michael G. Oxley of Ohio, while playing golf with him and mutual friends. After Ehrlich was elected, Oxley said, "I kind of alerted our leadership that he had a lot of talent and a lot of drive."
Ehrlich saw his chance to join Energy and Commerce when Gingrich resigned in 1998. Robert L. Livingston replaced Gingrich as speaker, but stepped down three weeks later after revelations of an extramarital affair. The instant they got the news, Ehrlich and his friend Republican Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan rushed up to Hastert on the House floor and encouraged him to fill the vacancy.
Ehrlich was a friend of Hastert's, with whom he liked to talk sports (Hastert was a wrestling and football coach).
Ehrlich was one of 20 members charged with lining up votes. After Hastert won, Ehrlich was rewarded with the position of senior deputy whip - a select group of about 10. He was also given Hastert's seat on Energy and Commerce.
Ehrlich boosted his status within the party in another way as well: Aided by his position on Energy and Commerce, he energetically raised money for fellow Republicans. In 1999, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia recruited him to be finance vice chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, a party political action committee for House races. Davis was looking for someone who would get phone calls returned.
"It was coming out of impeachment. He did it when nobody wanted to do it, when nobody thought we could rub two nickels together," Davis said. "He raised a record amount: $143 million."
Desire for change
Since George W. Bush became president, Ehrlich's position within the Maryland delegation has continued to rise, due in part to his early support of Bush's candidacy.
He played a central role in lobbying Bush to withhold federal funding for rebuilding the Woodrow Wilson Bridge if the state insisted on using pro-union work rules on the project. Ehrlich said he fought for the decision so minority contractors who don't use union workers could bid on it.
And although Morella is the ranking Republican in the delegation, Ehrlich has been the one to essentially select important appointments. He tapped Thomas M. DiBiagio to replace Battaglia as U.S. attorney, and was instrumental in getting Baltimore Circuit Judge William D. Quarles nominated as the first federal judge for Maryland appointed under Bush.
With this growing clout, one might wonder why Ehrlich would choose to leave.
"That would have been a really comfortable career path," he said. "But that's not what I want to do. This is a chance to really change things, a chance that doesn't come around very often."
But there are other reasons, too. Ehrlich has been moderate enough on some social issues to make him an object of some suspicion within the highest-ranking members of his party - and that means he'll probably never rise to their level. His qualified support of abortion, his belief that stem cells should be available for research, that people have the right to die if they want, that marijuana should be legal for the terminally ill - "It would all add up," he said.
But maybe as much as anything, Ehrlich is trying for governor because he is the consummate competitor. He doesn't love being only one of 435. He chafes at the snail's pace, the wasted time, the bloated speeches. He gets frustrated with all the waiting and the political antics. He wants to be in charge.
"That's true," he said.
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