In the rowhouse in the blue-collar town of Arbutus where they still live, Ehrlich’s parents doted on their only child. “We tried to interest Bobby in everything,” says his mother, Nancy.
He took a liking to politics, putting a Barry Goldwater sticker in the window and crying the day the 1964 Republican presidential nominee lost to Lyndon B. Johnson, but his real passion was sports.
Athletic scholarships took Ehrlich to Gilman, a private boys’ school in Baltimore, then Princeton, where he was captain of the football team.
After law school at Wake Forest, Ehrlich joined a Baltimore law firm and, in 1986, ran for the Maryland House of Delegates. Then, and in every campaign since, his parents threw themselves into the fray, showing up at events in shorts and Ehrlich T-shirts, waving signs on street corners, manning phone banks, and spending night after night knocking on doors for their son—Bob Sr. taking one side of a street, Nancy the other. “It’s effective, hon,” says Bob Sr.
Ehrlich represented parts of Baltimore County in the state legislature through 1995, earning a reputation as a moderate Republican in the image of Maryland’s late US senator Charles “Mac” Mathias. Leon Billings, a Democrat who served on the judiciary committee with Ehrlich, says, “he was one of the people I would classify as both a reasonable and responsible legislator. He didn’t seem to have a sharply defined ideology.”
In fact, Ehrlich frequently partnered with Democrats during a time of much bipartisanship.
Elected to Congress in 1994, the start of the Newt Gingrich revolution, Ehrlich had to straddle the line between the conservative GOP leadership on the Hill and the more moderate leanings of his state.
Kenneth Montague, a former Democratic delegate whom Ehrlich later appointed to head juvenile services in his administration, remembers visiting Ehrlich in Washington: “We sat down in an alcove, and he said, ‘Kenny, this place is nothing like what we had. These folks are angry. Sometimes I think they’re going to hit one another. It’s not like what we had.’ ”
Some of Ehrlich’s former colleagues said he moved to the right. “It was a little short of a metamorphosis, but a significant change,” says Billings, who also had occasional lunches with Ehrlich on Capitol Hill.
When he returned to Annapolis as the first Republican governor in 36 years, Ehrlich found himself repeatedly at odds with the Democratic legislature. Democrats say he wouldn’t compromise; they believe he could have achieved more, including a slots bill, if he had been willing to do so. He claims the legislature thwarted him. “We welcome compromise,” Ehrlich says, “but we don’t back away from confrontation.”
Asked by a caller on his radio show what would be different this time around with the same Democratic legislature, Ehrlich said, “Isn’t it better when you have dissent in democracy and kill some bad things? It’s good for the people, it’s good for the taxpayers when you have a different voice down there.”
One upshot of the Ehrlich administration was the rise of his lieutenant governor, Michael Steele, now the controversial chairman of the Republican National Committee. Ehrlich says that, though his experience with Steele was good, he’s not surprised by some of the troubles that have plagued his friend on the national stage. “Mike is irreverent and has a little bit different sense of humor, and that’s not status quo in Washington,” Ehrlich says. “Ultimately, he is going to be judged on results on November 2.”