Volume 12, Number 2, 2003

At home in the governor's mansion

When President George Bush introduced Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich to a packed crowd at a Baltimore reception, he pointed out that the governor had "married well."

Kendel Sibiski Ehrlich, AS '83, is in striking contrast to the crimped-haired first ladies whose massive oil portraits hang in the gubernatorial mansion in Annapolis.

Looking up the dark, curving grand staircase at the gilt-framed likenesses of her predecessors, former public defender Kendel Ehrlich jokes that her friends have advised her to have her portrait painted sooner rather than later.

Twenty years ago, this first lady was a UD criminal justice major who ran around the Newark campus daily for exercise. Senior year, she worked as a waitress at the now-defunct Ground Round restaurant. "On weekends, I was the clown," she says.

After graduating from the University of Baltimore Law School, Ehrlich worked from 1990-95 as a felony trial lawyer with the public defender's office in Annapolis.

She met her husband when he was a politicking outside her local polling place and a friend nudged her to meet the bachelor state representative.

They began dating, but the rubber-chicken political dinner circuit wasn't for her. "There are women out there who dream of marrying politicians. I was not one of them. I was 28. I had a doctor with a boat on the mind," she says.

When she tried to break it off, he showed up at her house toting a Top 10 list of reasons she should stick with Bob Ehrlich. The main reason was that she was perfectly suited for politics.

"He was right. He created a monster," she says.

The Ehrlichs and their young son, Drew, moved into the 19th-century Government House mansion this year after the conservative challenger upset Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in the November election. The place the couple calls "home" switched from a townhouse they bought for $153,000 in 1997 to an elegant, three-story mansion complete with historic sculpture, a sauna, a big-screen TV, a private weight room and a Waterford chandelier the size of the average powder room.

Kendel Ehrlich's old Wilbur Street roommates, Denise Halasnik Haines and Karen McKee Myers, both AS '83, noticed heady sea changes after the election.

"I was amazed by how the crowd responded to Bob and Kendel. They seemed to want to reach out and touch them as if they were gold," Haines says of inauguration day.

Myers was at Ehrlich's campaign headquarters when the votes were tallied: "It was quite an event. The numbers came in throughout the evening. The unusual part for those of us who were there was when all these executive-protection-type gentlemen arrived. We said, 'I guess he won. They're here.'"

In the months since the inauguration, Kendel Ehrlich has pumped iron with President Bush, kicked back in jeans with the Bushes at Camp David and found her own name on the GOP's short list of Marylanders they wish would challenge long-time Sen. Barbara Mikulski.

The Ehrlichs regularly fill the mansion with 100 to 200 Marylanders who turn out for the new "county days" the couple initiated.

"A lot of people have never been in this house. We feel very privileged to be here and we want to open it up so people can enjoy it," she says.

Transplanted to Government House, Kendel Ehrlich is thriving. "My husband laughs that my life has really gotten good. I don't do the chores everybody else does anymore--the cooking, the cleaning, the ironing. The other side of that is every Monday and Thursday night during the summer we've had 100 to 200 guests here.''

She doesn't drive any more; she's chauffeured. "It's kind of weird. Every once in awhile you just want to get in the car and hit the gas," she says.

They had the upstairs private living quarters painted and carpeted to make it less formal and homier for their son, the first preschooler in residence since the O'Connor administration in the 1940s. Drew walks around the high-ceiling rooms in his Spiderman pajamas, trailing a blanket.

The lone drawback of life at Annapolis' premier address is that the Ehrlichs must import playmates from Drew's preschool class or from the Murray Hill neighborhood nearby.

Ehrlich says having a kitchen staff on duty until 9:30 p.m. means a steady supply of chicken fingers for Drew and healthy snacks for the whole family. "You can eat incredibly healthily," she says. "When you get home at 8:30 at night, it's much easier to have a bowl of pasta than to make a salad, but, because you have someone here to make it, you have the salad."

On their first night in the mansion's private living quarters, the Ehrlichs raided the oversized refrigerator. "We just looked at each other like, 'I can't believe we're living here,'" she says.

They were undaunted by the mansion's miserable track record for marriages, but they did discuss it: Gov. Parris Glendening divorced his second wife in 2001, Gov. William Donald Schaefer's companion died of emphysema in 1999 and Gov. Marvin Mandel left his wife, Bootsie, in 1973 but she stayed on at Government House for six months and continued to entertain.

The Ehrlichs are settled in and planning to stay put for two terms. His Princeton pillows are scattered on the sofa. Drew's toys fill a porcelain bowl on the coffee table. A chain of red plastic monkeys hangs from the pull of an antique cabinet.

She still works occasionally as a Comcast attorney, but says she plans to quit as soon as her current project is complete. Her current work as first lady centers on drug and alcohol programs and on the planned Maryland women's history museum.

Her former UD roommates, looking back, say they aren't surprised to see Ehrlich making news.

"Even in college, you always knew when Kendel was in a room," Myers says. "She's one of those people who has always exuded natural beauty. She had that natural tan--that Lithuanian skin. She played hard, but she worked hard, too. She was very focused. She always knew what she wanted to do next. She was never wishy-washy. She was definite that she was going to law school."

"I didn't know how she would be in the public life; however, Kendel is like this social butterfly,'' Haines says. "I swear, if there were 13,000 undergrads at the University of Delaware at that time, she knew every one. Kendel likes people and people like her."

"If Bob ran for president, she would be the perfect first lady,'' Haines says.

What is next for Kendel Ehrlich?

She says it won't be a run for Milkulski's post. "It's bad enough having two lawyers in the house. Two politicians would be disastrous," she says.

Something on the national scene might be thinkable for her husband after two successful gubernatorial terms, she says.

More specifically?

Looking happily around the newly decorated private quarters of the mansion, she allows, "I'd prefer something that comes with a house now. Senate Schmenate."

--Kathy Canavan