Volume 12, Issue 19 ~ May 6-12, 2004
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Bay Weekly Interview ~ with Sandra Olivetti Martin
Kendel Ehrlich
Maryland’s First Lady is Mother, Wife and Political Partner

The election of November, 2002, moved a family into Government House. With Gov. Robert Ehrlich came first lady Kendel and first son Drew. On March 7, a second son, Joshua Taylor, was delivered to the first family. With the historic 134-year-old, 54-room mansion home to two children under five, car seats, strollers and tike bikes line the side entrance hall. Energy levels rise to highs unreached for well over a century with nightly pillow fights and backyard hoop-shoots.

Of course much more than family life goes on here, for the high-powered adult Ehrlichs are missionaries in a foreign land, where Republicans had not held the lease in 33 years. As governor, Robert Ehrlich says his mission is to change the political culture of Maryland. As first lady, Kendel Ehrlich makes her mission doing all in her power to assure that just that happens. The Ehrlichs are partners, equal partners by their own reckoning, who agree on political means as well as ends.

It could be argued that Kendel Ehrlich has the more complicated job in the partnership of Ehrlich and Ehrlich, for none of her three or four roles — political wife, first lady, mother and woman in her own right — is predefined by job description. Yet she fills them all with zest, energy and ease.

At 42, Kendel Ehrlich is a high-energy, first-name call-me-Kendel kind of person with a quick, staccato laugh. She’d just played first lady, joining President George W. Bush, her husband and Lt. Gov. Michael Steele in visiting a veteran’s hospital in Baltimore, when we caught up with her. Still dressed in a robin’s egg-blue suit that matched the color of her eyes, she sat down with a coke and Bay Weekly editor Sandra Martin and writer Louis Llovio in the sagey green sitting room of the family quarters she’s just redecorated.

But another role was never far from her mind. “If I hear a cry or scream,” she said, “I’ll have to run …”

Bay Weekly What’s been your hardest adjustment, becoming a mother or becoming first lady? And which has changed your life more?

Kendel Ehrlich First lady. Motherhood, surprisingly, has been a wonderful experience for me. I was quite a career person, and I got married later and had my children obviously later than many. When I was a career person, I was a little apprehensive about having my kids. But it’s been incredibly rewarding.

It’s also been wonderful seeing the development of Drew. In him, we were very fortunate to have a very flexible child. Drew has quite a personality on him as far as rolling with the punches.

I’m hoping the second one is as flexible. That is yet to be determined. The first two weeks were a little rough.

[Editor’s note: Two-month-old Joshua Ehrlich is recovering at home from hour-long surgery May 2 to correct pyloric stenosis, an obstruction between the stomach and the small intestine. Baby Joshua is “doing well” and expected “to make a full recovery,” according to Dr. Robert Voigt, chief of pediatric surgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center.]

Bay Weekly What part of motherhood is most rewarding for you?

Kendel Ehrlich Just watching them … Their brains are so incredible. They’re like sponges, and you realize with your own brain what age does to it. Drew is just really fun to watch. He’s also a fun kid to be around. He has a very good personality and really enjoys people. At least with Drew, that has been my joy.

As for Josh, that is yet to be determined. But I’ve got to tell you, he is a really good baby so far. Knock on wood.

Bay Weekly What is he doing?

Kendel Ehrlich He’s been sleeping well for an eight-week-old and eating well, too. He is very determined if you’re not quick with the food. If you aren’t there, he lets you know, so I’m afraid we might have one more strong personality in this family, which will make four.

Bay Weekly What does he eat?

Kendel Ehrlich He’s eating formula at this point. I’m having my two-month appointment this week, but I don’t think he gets any solid food just yet.

Bay Weekly Did you learn so much with Drew that adding a second child to your family has been effortless?

Kendel Ehrlich Not effortless, no!
The old memory has to come back. Children are always different, everybody’s told me that. He spits up more than Drew did.

Bay Weekly Do the boys have a nanny?

Kendel Ehrlich I don’t have a nanny right now. I think I might. I have been interviewing for someone to help. Right now, my mother-in-law has been invaluable. She comes down for a couple of days, then goes home for a couple of days and does the same routine. It’s been heaven, actually, and for her a labor of love.

Bay Weekly How do you divide your time?

Kendel Ehrlich It would be easier if I didn’t want to be the primary caretaker, but I do. Our schedule is so varied with what I need to be at. For example, today the president of the United States came in, and my husband said “You need to be there.” I have some very close friends nearby who helped me out for a couple of hours so I could do that.

That’s my issue. I need some help for a couple hours here, a couple hours, there but not all of the time. I will figure out my help and get a schedule.

Bay Weekly Is Drew indeed in preschool now?

Kendel Ehrlich He is in preschool and will be in kindergarten next year.

Bay Weekly Is it the Naval Academy?

Kendel Ehrlich Yes, and he’ll go there next year for primary school.

Bay Weekly How did you make your decision?

Kendel Ehrlich I happened to go to the NAP [Naval Academy Primary] school and fell in love with it. It was great for Drew. With his age and placement, it was a great fit.

Bay Weekly What in a school were you looking for?

Kendel Ehrlich I was looking for an old-fashioned schoolhouse, and that’s what it is, from the wooden floors to uniforms. Plus the emphasis is on computer learning. Those were three things that were very big for me, and I found them all in one place.

Drew goes to computer lab every Friday and loves it. It was very important for me to have that very early. The CDs for the kids, the science and the math, make learning so much fun. It’s amazing.

Bay Weekly It sounds like you enjoy all these things yourself. The delight a child has in discovering: That’s still yours?

Kendel Ehrlich I think I’m going back with him. It’s really fun to do it all over again. Toys are scattered throughout all the rooms he plays in. It’s a lot of fun.

It’s a nice group at his school — the moms are terrific and the teachers are great — so there’s a lot of camaraderie. So kids are often over here or he’s at someone else’s house.

Bay Weekly So Government House is working well as home to a young family?

Kendel Ehrlich It’s a wonderful place. This house is a wonderful place to bring other children. The staff has loved having a four-year-old here. They’re thrilled to see the baby and hold the baby, and I think they’re going to be equally thrilled to watch Josh grow up here.

Bay Weekly Tell us, please, your philosophy of child-rearing. What do you want to be for your boys and inspire in them?

Kendel Ehrlich I’m a person of the basics, and I think that comes from my own upbringing. Things like honesty, manners and conducting yourself in a certain way, adult time and child time.

Certainly activities. I love to be outside personally, so it’s important to me to get Drew outside. Today there’s a lot of discussion about kids wanting to be in front of the computer all the time. I’m a very balance-oriented person. Everything in moderation.

I grew up watching television, so I am not anti-television. It’s got to be monitored, because it’s different now than when I was a kid. Children are going to be exposed at some point no matter what, so you’d better be prepared to explain to them what they’re seeing and why it’s appropriate or not appropriate.

That’s really what my philosophy is: things in moderation with explanation.

I also think that parents need to respect that kids are really smart. They pick up how you feel, emotions and a lot of things. Drew is very much part of who we are and what we do, and I try to explain and be there for him as best I can.

Bay Weekly Will you share a discipline tip that’s worked for you?

Kendel Ehrlich That varies with stages. During the beautiful no stage, I think Drew had a time-out every day for 45 days one year. Time-out works for him. He knows time-outs are not a good thing. He knows not to use bad words, things like stupid, some of which he hears on tv.

Of course at the age of four, you take away what he likes to do, whether it be candy or computer time. And obviously, really enforcing it and making sure your spouse really enforces the same thing and that you’re together on it. That’s important.

Bay Weekly How does the governor fit two sons in his busy schedule?

Kendel Ehrlich We’re all together as a family at night. Drew is a late-night child. He was trained that way from when his father was in Congress.

I was pretty much your single mom in Congress, particularly in summer months when they do appropriations. Congressmen usually get home very late. And we were fortunate [living in Maryland] that my husband came home. Most congressmen are completely away for the bulk of the week.

Anyway, we were lucky that Bob came home. But it was very late. Drew and I would have eaten earlier, and then he was able to see Drew. So that is our time together, later in the evening.

Bay Weekly Are there special times and things the governor does with them?

Kendel Ehrlich Pillow fights are a big thing with the governor and his son. Drew also happens to be a fairly good golfer — nothing major yet, we’re not thinking he’s Tiger Woods. Just in enjoyment, he likes to go out and hit balls. He and his father will often do that over at Eisenhower late in the evening.

Bay Weekly So it’s a physical relationship he has with his father?

Kendel Ehrlich Oh sure. Dads do that well with boys. Even moms and boys. We shoot baskets in the back. I like that part. I’m better with the physical aspect than I am with arts and crafts.

Bay Weekly Do you have a model in mothering? Particularly, how have you adapted what you learned from your own mother?

Kendel Ehrlich When I was young, my mom was a great mom. There’s no doubt about that. I think she was really great at instilling things like honesty and respect and how to treat people. That’s one thing I strongly take from my mother.

I also baby-sat for a long time and saw other moms raising kids. But I think you really bring your own style to anything. So to say there’s one particular style or way, I’d probably say no.

Bay Weekly Let’s move now into your professional life. You’ve been described as a very competitive trial lawyer. Tell us about your career.

Kendel Ehrlich I worked as a public defender here in Annapolis for five years in felony trial work. That’s the time I met my husband, who was in the state legislature.

It was a wonderful job. I worked with a very talented group of people. I really loved that work because you saw your hands-on work with each case. It was hard work, often difficult because people were in very difficult circumstances. But I really loved the idea of being able to walk in and help someone, whether to get through the process or having a lesser sentence.

Bay Weekly Then you went to the other side, as a prosecutor?

Kendel Ehrlich Then my husband got elected to Congress, and I could not do all that. For a while, I worked independently. Then I went to Youth Services International, an organization that at the time was running the Hickey School, a juvenile detention facility, in Baltimore County. I was in a general council position.

But I missed the courtroom, so I went back as a prosecutor up in Harford County. I worked with prosecuting juveniles and in district court matters.

Bay Weekly So you saw the law from both sides?

Kendel Ehrlich Both sides, and that’s a real advantage. When I was a public defender, I thought that prosecuting was easier. It turned out in many ways to be more difficult. Because no one is happy with a prosecutor. At least some of the time, as a public defender, you would have a client who was happy with the result.

It was not easy being a prosecutor. A lot of people are tearing at you on any given day.

Bay Weekly Did that tear on you or are you revved by controversy.

Kendel Ehrlich I have that revved spirit. I don’t think I could be living here if I didn’t have that spirit. Even being a prosecutor pales in comparison to the political arena.

Bay Weekly What was the next step in your career?

Kendel Ehrlich I have always had a relationship with Comcast, and I went to work with them in contracts on a part-time basis knowing that Bob was going to gear up to run for governor.

I took the job as a prosecutor on a part-time basis, too, knowing we were hopefully going to have Drew. And I have only worked part-time with him. As a mother, I’m committed to keeping my work part-time.

Bay Weekly Motherhood was one of the forces that’s shaped your decisions. Has being the wife of a politician also made you a politician?

Kendel Ehrlich It has. It wouldn’t work otherwise the way we do it, which is often together.

Bay Weekly There are lots of ways the role of political wife is lived, from the involved political partner — certainly Frances Hughes Glendening — to the family woman who’s virtually a single parent, say Judy Hoyer in her lifetime — to the woman who lives her own life out of the arena, as Senate President Miller’s wife Patti seems to do. What’s been your choice?

Kendel Ehrlich I represent a partner who works with my husband in politics. I happen to enjoy politics, and I was a big part of the campaign for many reasons. One because I enjoy it. Two because I am a help in delivering message. And I love the fight, which is consistent with my background in trial work.

Bay Weekly Has being first a political wife and now first lady become a career for you?

Kendel Ehrlich I transfer my professional world to his world in politics and join him in it. The way we do it — which works for us and our relationship — is that we share in it. I know the people around him, and I like to protect him and advocate for him. It works for me to be a part of that.

I also enjoy speaking. Sometimes it gets me in trouble, but he always knows that about me. He married me knowing that I tend to speak my mind.

He speaks his mind as well. Both of our personalities are such that neither one of us likes to be told what do to. As a result, we honor that with each other. Like I said, there’s going to be four strong personalities in this house.

He entered a very difficult race for Congress. We did not have children at that point, and we campaigned together, and we campaigned hard, because we were slated to lose that race.

We do it together, and people are used to seeing us together.

Bay Weekly And are you the governor’s advisor?

Kendel Ehrlich When the time came to make a decision about running for governor, I was probably the strongest voice because I really thought he could win. A lot of his staff was not happy that I had such a strong voice, because there was nothing objective to say that he could win. It was very difficult for a Republican running statewide.

But once we made that decision, we all became very committed, and I was very much a part of that campaign — and will be in future campaigns.

Bay Weekly What part of campaigning do you like best?

Kendel Ehrlich I love speaking. I love meeting people, and I love when people come up to me and ask me why they should vote for my husband. Sometimes, it’s a little easier to brag about your spouse than for him to do it himself. Bob sometimes is a little more humble than I would be.

Bay Weekly How about raising money?

Kendel Ehrlich I’ll do that too, now. I’ve gotten used to it over the years. You can’t do it without the financial support, and I’ve gotten used to saying, ‘If you feel this way, then you need to put your money where your mouth is.’

I tell my husband I’ve learned it all from him. I’m his best student. He created me. It’s his fault. So there!

Bay Weekly Is he a natural?

Kendel Ehrlich He’s a natural. But I’m putting my money on Drew Ehrlich to put him to shame.

Bay Weekly What do you say when people ask why they should vote for your husband?

Kendel Ehrlich People vote for all kinds of different reasons.

I said to Bob when we met, ‘I didn’t exactly plan on meeting a politician.’ I had the same view many do: They’re always corrupt or they’re always this or that, usually a negative connotation.

He is really not like that. He is exactly as he appears to be. He is honest as the day is long. He is in it for the power of doing the right thing, not for personal power.

Getting out there and making an impression or dissipating an impression: It can be either way.

Bay Weekly Your husband is trying to change the political culture of Maryland. Do you have a role in that?

Kendel Ehrlich Republicans in the state often must overcome a stereotype. Many people would not think that a 42-year-old mom who was a public defender would be a Republican. But I’m very comfortable being a Republican.

My husband is a moderate, and people who thought they would never vote for a Republican tell me we can we work together with that.

We can change the climate, change the stereotype, change government itself. People resist change until they see that most change is positive.

Bay Weekly Give us an example of what you mean by that …

Kendel Ehrlich Even changes that bring losses in life have been positive. My brother passed away from colon cancer. That was a life-altering experience. It was a strong part of why I thought Bob should run for governor. You don’t want to look back 10 years later and say ‘I should have …’

Bay Weekly As first lady, what causes have you made your own?

Kendel Ehrlich One is advocating against drug and alcohol abuse. I haven’t gotten full up and running with that, obviously, with having a baby. We did some ads with Terps’ basketball coach Gary Williams against underage drinking. My concern in that area is based on my dealings with criminal justice. Very few people who are represented don’t have some kind of alcohol or drug addiction. I just think addiction is taking over society on all levels.

I think it’s very important to educate kids. I am on the teen council for the Board of Education on substance abuse, and it’s just fascinating what the kids say and what they believe about why kids get started and get addicted. They probably are our best source of information to listen to and to learn.

Also education, anything to do with education and technology in particular. Also things like spousal abuse, for domestic violence was very important to me as a prosecutor. That was a very frustrating issue, to have women who would not go forward with prosecutions.

Also I am working on a women’s history museum, which came by happenstance because the Maryland Women’s Commission had me to an event. They talked about the fact they had always wanted to do this and how could government help.

I said, ‘In times like this, let’s forget government, because they’re not going to be much help at all, and let’s see what we can do’. So we are really off and running on a two- or three-year project. We believe we have a site in Baltimore City, and we are laying the groundwork to do that.

So those are the areas I’m interested in: criminal justice, education, women’s history.

As a baby cries in the background, a baby-sitter appears at the door. First lady Ehrlich shrugs her shoulders. “Now, I’ll have to go.”

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.
Last updated May 5, 2004 @ 11:30am.