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Former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich holds town hall at New England College

Last modified: 2/25/2015 12:30:45 AM
At times during his town hall at New England College yesterday, Bob Ehrlich – the former Maryland governor and one of the latest Republicans to test the presidential waters in New Hampshire – sounded a bit like an impassioned professor trying to engage his classroom on the principles of “practical leadership.”

The American people, Ehrlich told a roomful of about 60 students and community members, were looking for more out of their elected officials.

“Give me a definition of leadership. Someone?” Ehrlich asked the crowd. “Are there any captains of teams here?”

After a few moments, a student in the audience offered up one definition: Someone who’s willing to take charge.

But, Ehrlich pressed on, how do they do that? They get people involved, the student responded. Bingo. In Ehrlich’s words, a leader needs to “build coalitions and define the stakes.”

“I’m defining the stakes for your generation right now,” Ehrlich said, turning to the students in the room. “You better care about this culture, ’cause you’re going to inherit it. You better care that citizenship means something. You better care that capitalism works. And you better care there is a growing army in a faraway place ready, willing to come here and kill you because you are you. Okay? So I would say the stakes are pretty high. And I want to challenge you, all of the young people here . . . get involved.”

During his speech, Ehrlich used the floor to pass along another lesson about the importance of compromise. When he became Maryland’s governor in 2003, Ehrlich was the first Republican to serve in that role since 1969.

“I had a very liberal legislature,” Ehrlich explaind. “I had to learn what governors and presidents need to learn: You’re not going to get 100 percent of what you want.”

To prove his point, Ehrlich pointed to the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Act – a piece of legislation that imposed a tax on homeowners, according to the Baltimore Sun , to improve sewage treatment plants.

The law wasn’t perfect in Ehrlich’s eyes, and he knew it would likely upset some people in his base – but he still decided to sign it because it was “the best chance to get the bay cleaner” in his lifetime.

When the floor opened up for questions, sophomore Morgan Gardner volunteered first. She was interested in hearing where Ehrlich stood on marriage equality.

“I support traditional marriage,” Ehrlich said. “I also think there are bundles of rights that apply to adult relationships and I supported those rights in the state of Maryland.”

But junior Asher Macleod, sitting next to Gardner at the event, pressed for more specifics. He first asked Ehrlich to define traditional marriage.

“A man and a woman,” Ehrlich said.

On what basis, Macleod asked. Ehrlich said his moral values play into his views on marriage, but they aren’t the only factor.

“I talk a lot about rights. I talk a lot about freedom. I talk a lot about fatherlessness, as well, as one of the problems in our poor communities,” the former governor explained. “So I think we have to be very careful about line-drawing and rights. I support traditional marriage and I support all sorts of rights that used to go with traditional marriage, with regards to nontraditional relationships. Let me ask you a question: Why would you stop at one spouse? Why not three spouses? Intellectually?”

“The tax code’s difficult,” Macleod replied, prompting laughs from both Ehrlich and the audience.

“That’s really good,” Ehrlich said. “We agree with that!”

The discussion between the pair continued on for a few more minutes. When Macleod asked Ehrlich whether he could identify any negative outcomes that have resulted from legalizing gay marriage, Ehrlich said his views stem from concerns about “the absence of male role models” and the importance of exposing children to “both genders.”

Macleod then started to ask another question but got cut off.

“Have you read any of the studies . . .”

“Oh, I’ve read a lot of studies, believe me,” Ehrlich responded. “I’ve read some studies you should maybe read.”

Macleod finished his question: “Okay, have you read the studies that have shown that gay parents can be just as effective?”

“I have no problem with that,” Ehrlich said.

“Okay, so I’m wondering how you reconcile . . .”

Ehrlich interrupted the student again, offering to send some material that informed his position: “Well, I’m going to send you some stuff, okay?”

Macleod said he’d read the material Ehrlich wanted to pass along. Then the student followed up again.

“Sir, I’d like to consider voting for the Republican Party that’s said to stand for small, limited government, but I don’t see how . . .”

Ehrlich cut in another time: “Are you libertarian?”

“Socially, sure,” Macleod said. “I don’t see how regulating who people marry, who people can love is an example . . .”

“States have always regulated that. It’s not new,” Ehrlich said. “Always. But I’ll talk to you.”

After the forum wrapped up, the two students said they weren’t satisfied with the responses Ehrlich provided to their questions. Macleod said he’s gay, so the issue is personal for him.

“I don’t think just because he thinks something that gives him the right to legislate and discriminate against me,” Macleod said, adding that he expects the issue to be settled by the Supreme Court or in public opinion at large by the next election cycle. “The Republican Party’s going to need to adapt. Because young people, they don’t care.”

Gardner, for her part, also said she’ll be paying close attention to where candidates stand on issues like marriage equality and other “personal freedoms.”

“I do give him props for standing his ground in his opinion,” she said, “but I personally don’t agree with it.”

Speaking to the media after the event, Ehrlich acknowledged that he’s just one of many potential presidential hopefuls vying for voters’ attention at this stage. Still, he’s optimistic that he’ll be able to reach out to people – in person and through social media – to show voters what he has to offer.

“I’m pretty confident in my ability to campaign and engage. I have a record and a history, obviously, that people will look at,” Ehrlich said. “But for now it’s truly trying to figure out whether my style, my substance fits here, now.”

(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or cmcdermott@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)


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