January 29, 2003: A moment with...

A moment with...
Bob Ehrlich ’79

Photo: ap/wide world photos

This month, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. ’79 became the first Republican governor of Maryland, an overwhelmingly Democratic state, in 34 years. To do it, he defeated Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the two-term lieutenant governor and eldest daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, who had held a 15-point advantage in voter polls at the beginning of the campaign. Here, he speaks with Washington Post writer Daniel LeDuc for PAW.


Given Maryland’s Democratic history and the fundraising ability of the Kennedy family, what prompted you to run and think you could win?

Republicans were hopeful but skeptical. It was the Democrats who were uncomfortable with reports about corruption in Annapolis. As more and more Republicans started to believe in me, it became clear that a lot of Democrats were ready to cross party lines. We believed we could raise the $8 million we thought was needed to run an effective race. And, lo and behold, we raised $10.5 million.

You selected an African-American running mate – a first in Maryland. How important was race in your election?

First, understand that I didn’t choose Michael Steele because he is black. He was the chairman of the state Republican party, and I chose him as a running mate because he helped solidify the Republican base. He balanced some of my philosophical views. But I’m the first person to acknowledge that, as an African American, he gave our campaign standing in the African-American communities we may have otherwise lacked.

You cocaptained the football team at Princeton. What did athletics teach you?

Success at anything at a young age is important for any person, whether it’s music or athletics or academics; it really doesn’t matter. But some success gives you the confidence you need to compete. It’s a cliché, but a lot of lessons you learn in a team sport carry over to your adult life – discipline, playing by the rules, understanding that nothing’s automatic in life. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. That work ethic is a constant.

How did you first become involved in politics, and why are you a Republican?

Politics was as close to athletics as I could find. I grew up in a close-knit family where politics was discussed every night at the dining room table. My parents both had strong views about politics, and when you combine a competitive personality, success in athletics, interest in politics and issues, and a law degree, this is what you get. My parents were fairly conservative. I always associated freedom with Republicans. Some of my political views are influenced by libertarian thought.

How did your working-class background affect you at Princeton and at the Gilman School, a prep school?

You start with a chip on your shoulder and you work from there. Because of that chip on my shoulder, I probably didn’t have a very good attitude when I began. The outsider issue was more pronounced during my first months at Gilman, not Princeton. I felt ready to tackle the academic, social, and athletic loads in college because of my exposure to a hyper-competitive environment at Gilman. But a great learning experience early on was to understand it didn’t matter where people came from, it didn’t matter their skin color, it didn’t matter their ethnicity; kids were kids.

How did Princeton prepare you for political life?

It was kind of interesting being a Republican in the mid- and late ’70s at Princeton. Most of the faculty was pretty left-wing. I got involved in some quarrels and some good debates with professors on defense, supply-side economics, Jimmy Carter – there were too many to remember them all. At Princeton, with such a small teacher-student ratio, I do believe it’s quite helpful because you learn how to debate and think things through.

You’ve emphasized fiscal issues but also have indicated a willingness to take a fresh look at some state gun-control laws, to sign new parental-consent laws on abortion, and to consolidate state environmental departments. Describe your conservatism and your Republicanism.

In a word, mainstream. I think I am where the majority of people are on these kinds of hot-button issues. I’ve never been on the fringes of anything. I’ve always balanced gun-ownership rights with commonsense gun-safety and gun-control laws that, in my opinion, keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. I’ve consistently and strongly supported a woman’s right to have an abortion, though I don’t think taxpayers should have to pay for it. And, by the way, I support new parental-notification laws, not parental-consent laws. Some people are uncomfortable with my willingness to speak my mind. I’ve never been accused of being politically correct, and hope I never am.



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