Inside his new corner office overlooking the White House, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. offers only measured reflections on his 18-year run through Maryland politics, highlighted by his term as the state’s first Republican governor in four decades.
Mr. Ehrlich is instead diving enthusiastically into plans for his second act — as a major influence on national politics and conservative causes through a book, a proposed syndicated radio show and his new job at a high-profile international Washington law firm.
“My [work] will be a blueprint for the party and for the country going forward,” said Mr. Ehrlich, adding that he loves the view but hopes his efforts will help bring a new occupant to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Though Mr. Ehrlich returns to Washington a few months after failing to recapture the governorship he first lost to Democrat Martin O’Malley in 2006, he already is trying to make an impact.
His wife, Kendel, recently hosted a fundraiser for Republican George Allen in his attempt to win back his U.S. Senate seat in Virginia. This week, Mr. Ehrlich is scheduled to join former Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a Democrat, at the Council of Foreign Affairs in New York for a talk about the issues likely to drive the 2012 presidential election cycle.
“It feels good,” he said. “Being able to come back is something unforeseen but pleasant.”
Mr. Ehrlich first arrived in Washington in 1994 as a member of Congress and part of the GOP wave that helped Newt Gingrich become House speaker and take control of the chamber for the first time in 40 years.
But further comparison between his class and the Republicans who regained control of the House in 2010 “probably stop there,” he said.
“It was a revolution year,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “But this appears to be a more veteran class. In conversations with my friends in leadership, they are very impressed.”
Mr. Ehrlich singles out House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, as one of the chamber’s most impressive GOP lawmakers and an example of the type of leadership he wants to bring to Washington.
“The general rule in this town is when you go out on limb and exert leadership — from the right or left — more often than not you will have that limb sawed off behind you,” he said. “Witness the Ryan budget. What Mr. Ryan and the new Republican leadership are betting on is that there will an exception to that rule — when the numbers become so dramatic and tangible that people will listen and the negative consequences will not follow.”
Despite his lasting connections in the House, Mr. Ehrlich, 53, insists he has no plans to return to Capitol Hill to lobby or become a Washington insider, wanting instead to make a national impact through his projects, working at the King & Spalding law firm and through speaking engagements and TV appearances.
He said it is “highly unlikely” that he will run again for elected office, considering “the last two election cycles have made it clear that the majority of Marylanders wish to go in another direction.”
The book is titled “Turn This Car Around: The Roadmap to Saving the American Dream” and offers personal anecdotes and a libertarian-influenced view on such issues as marriage, class warfare and the failures of public education in urban areas.
In 2003, Mr. Ehrlich’s first year as governor, he signed legislation he got through the Democrat-controlled General Assembly to open the state’s first charter school. A year later, he vowed to take control of 11 Baltimore schools that had long failed students.
Old friends help
“The point of the book is don’t be politically correct, just articulate common-sense views,” said Mr. Ehrlich, who mentioned that former New York mayor and 2008 GOP presidential candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani and conservative heavyweights such as Charles Krauthammer and Juan Williams have read chapters and returned positive reviews.
“I got involved because of Mr. Ehrlich’s strong stance on school reform, which includes charter schools and vouchers, especially for the poor,” Mr. Williams said. “He also gave to historically black colleges. These are some of the key civil rights issues of our time. It’s easy to demonize poor urban kids, but Mr. Ehrlich extended a hand.”
Mr. Giuliani also said he is excited about the book and Mr. Ehrlich’s new endeavors but that the former governor was shortchanged by Maryland voters in the 2006 elections when Democrats nationally won control of the House and Senate.
“Bobby Ehrlich has a great future, but I still think he was one of the greatest governors in the country,” he said, citing Mr. Ehrlich’s success in balancing state budgets and bringing jobs to Maryland. “It’s a shame he got caught up the national reaction to Republicans. … He’s what we need in Washington, a pragmatist. The book is interesting, has real insight.”
The often-told “Bobby Ehrlich story” is almost inextricable from his views on the importance of educational alternatives to public schools, especially for the poor.
The son of a car salesman growing up in a working-class section of Baltimore County, Mr. Ehrlich attended the prestigious Gilman School in Baltimore, largely on his athletic prowess.
However, it was the school’s academic rigors, the opportunity to excel and the friendships he forged there that led him to Princeton University, where he was captain of the football team, then to the Wake Forest University School of Law, elected office, a lucrative private-sector career and now King & Spalding, where managing partner J. Sedwick “Wick” Sollers is a fellow Princeton graduate and former prep school football rival.
Mr. Ehrlich said his decision about what to do after public office was difficult, but his long-term friendship with Mr. Sollers led him to King & Spalding, which he calls “a great law firm and a great fit” for him.
Still, he faces a tough challenge in presenting a voice that rises above the many others in Washington trying to have an impact on national politics. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has a book scheduled for release in August, and Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minnesota Republican, a major conservative voice and potential 2012 presidential candidate, is reportedly working on one for a September release.
“There so many people and so few slots,” Republican strategist and media consultant Jon Brabender said about Mr. Ehrlich’s foray into TV and radio. “It takes more than knowledge. You have to be entertaining. And you have to pick one end of the spectrum so that 100 percent of the audience either agrees with you or wishes you were dead. I’ll be interested to see how Bob does.”
‘A closed chapter’
Trim and tanned, Mr. Ehrlich said he works out regularly but can no longer lift weights at a gym because “too many people want to talk politics.”
Though proud of his work in Maryland, including two terms as a state delegate, Mr. Ehrlich, who still has that “regular guy” personality that won over voters, downplays many of his political successes.
In 2006, he vetoed a General Assembly bill that would have forced the biggest companies in the state to pay either 8 percent of their payroll on employee health care or pay that amount to a state fund.
He said he still thinks that was the first major skirmish in the movement toward government-run health care but that his decision was beyond ideology. “It was blatantly unconstitutional,” he said, slapping his desk. “Killing an initiative that costs jobs should not generate a lot of credit for politicians.”
A federal judge eventually struck down the law as unconstitutional.
“It was a great run,” he said. “But for me, it is a closed chapter.”