PRINCE FREDERICK – The national anthem has been sung, the pledge of allegiance has been recited, the prayer and the emcee’s opening remarks are a memory by the time Rep. Bob Ehrlich, R-Timonium, appears at the Lincoln Day Dinner in Calvert County.
“Ladies and gentleman,” Joyce Lyons Terhes calls into the microphone. “The next governor of Maryland has arrived!”
She means Ehrlich, the night’s keynote speaker. But another man who would be the “next governor of Maryland” has been working this crowd for more than an hour now. Having already greeted half the room, he’s unabashedly working the ones trapped in the buffet line.
No matter that Maryland’s Republican Party has all but declared Rep. Robert Ehrlich its gubernatorial nominee, or that the party chairman has said he will make sure “we will not have a primary.”
Ross Z. Pierpont is running for governor.
“Have you read this?” Pierpont says, slipping his 18-page campaign brochure to a hungry Republican in the buffet line at the recent Calvert event. “It’s about the Kennedys — you’ll like it.”
Some people slap Pierpont on the back. One or two embrace him. Others look in vain for an escape. Either way, Pierpont, 84, appears unflappable.
Now in his 16th campaign, after 15 losses, the retired Republican surgeon from Timonium has heard all the naysaying and smirking before. He doesn’t even flinch when Terhes gushes over Ehrlich, who arrives late. Pierpont just keeps smiling — and running.
“I’ve given up saying a word about it,” says Grace Pierpont, sitting quietly while her husband works the room. “I just go along and enjoy it.”
Pierpont’s hefty campaign brochure, titled “S.O.S. – Save Our State,” is a diatribe that takes on the Democratic frontrunner, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and pretty much every Kennedy ever seen in U.S. politics.
“The pamphlet is an explanation of what we’re trying to do. We don’t want to see a coronation of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend as governor, which she is totally unfit for,” Pierpont says. “The Kennedys are responsible for the disintegration of the Democratic party.”
The brochure claims to “expose” Camelot as a conspiracy and charges Townsend with reckless spending and incompetence. Starting on page 2, she gets a thrashing for paying out more than $1 million in salaries to a 17-person staff of “babysitters” — her advisers and aides.
Townsend’s chief of staff did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Pierpont’s brochure doesn’t even mention his own candidacy until page 16. But apparently, that’s part of the strategy.
Pierpont gets impatient when pressed about challenging Ehrlich in the primary, as if the question misses the point entirely. He has only praise for the GOP frontrunner, and stands applauding after Ehrlich speaks at the dinner.
“The beauty of this is that there’s two of us,” Pierpont says, still clapping. “If anything happens to one of us, the other one is there.
“You see, we’ve never had this kind of strength before. The reason I’ve had to run so many times is because nobody else would run,” he says.
Pierpont has indeed competed in races when no other Republicans would. A Democrat until 1970, he has spent more than $3 million of his own over the years to carry the GOP flag in elections.
He has won several primaries, but never a general election: In the 1998 general election against Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski, he collected only 444,637 — 29.5 percent — of the votes.
“The funny thing is, he’s not a crackpot,” said Montgomery Journal columnist Blair Lee. “It’s just that running for elected office is his hobby.”
Hobbyist or not, Pierpont is about more than anti-Kennedy diatribes. The crux of his platform is healthcare. More than 50 years in medicine left him so disenchanted with the American healthcare system that he devised a “cradle to grave” plan he hopes to pilot in Maryland.
Based on the German model, Pierpont’s system would resemble a cooperative, in that everyone would own a piece of it. Pierpont claims the plan would extend coverage to everyone and reduce government involvement to a minimum.
“He’s a good man — more committed to healthcare than anyone” said Ehrlich’s campaign manager, Paul Schurick, carefully choosing his words about the elder upstart.
“We’ve known Dr. Pierpont for years. We like him,” Schurick said. “He’s done a lot to advance the issue of healthcare, and he’s done a lot for the Republican Party . . . I think I’ll just leave it at that.”
Some say Pierpont’s campaign could actually benefit Ehrlich, letting him take the high road while Pierpont directs his vitriol at Townsend.
“He’ll help Ehrlich in a way, by leveling some charges against the Kennedys and saying some things that others might not be willing to say,” Lee said. “Given the many times he’s lost, though, I don’t think he’s a serious candidate.”
Don’t tell that to Sidney Burns, 61, a certified public accountant who agreed last fall to be Pierpont’s running mate.
“I’m kind of upset, because the Republican Party ignores us,” Burns said.
Unlike Pierpont, Burns chafed at Maryland GOP Chairman Michael Steele’s vow that there would not be a Republican primary this year.
“Oh, there’s going to be a Republican primary. We’re not going away,” Burns said. “If we win, Michael Steele’s desk goes out in the street.”
Steele could not be reached for comment, but others say his job is secure.
“Everyone believes that lightning can strike. He (Pierpont) sure has name recognition . . . but the governor’s race, forget it,” said Mark Plotkin, political analyst for WTOP. “Ehrlich has a base. The entire Republican machine is behind him.”
Pierpont shrugs off that kind of talk.
“People can say whatever they want about me,” he said, adding that it is not important who wins the primary but who wins the governor’s mansion. Asked how he would react if he lost the primary to Ehrlich,, but Ehrlich went on to beat Townsend, Pierpont answers without hesitating.
“That’s a win!” he says.