Governors’ Spouses Prepare For Life in the Spotlight

By: - December 4, 2002 12:00 am

Democratic Kansas Gov.-elect Kathleen Sebelius’ husband says “First Gentleman” lacks the right ring.

“I’ve been toying with the idea of being called First Dude,” Gary Sebelius said.

Sebelius, who soon will be sworn in as a U.S. magistrate, is one of three spouses of incoming governors who will answer to “Your Honor.” Minnesota’s first lady-elect, Mary Pawlenty, and Pennsylvania’s Midge Rendell are also judges.

Twenty-three states will have new governors in January. Of those, two are single — Arizona’s Janet Napolitano (D), and Hawaii’s Linda Lingle (R). Nineteen states will greet new first ladies, and two states, Kansas and Michigan, will welcome first gentlemen, or dudes as the case may be.

Since Election Day, spouses of incoming governors have been preparing for their new role, thinking about moving into the mansion, and getting advice from predecessors. Most will have a small staff to help with correspondence and orchestrate appearances once their spouses take the oath of office.

But planning isn’t easy, because “there’s no job description,” said Andrea Conte, wife of Tennessee Gov.-elect Phil Bredesen (D). “I like the latitude of it. I look at it as an opportunity of great independence and a chance to pursue things that are important to me.”

Conte, a registered nurse, said she plans to use the bully pulpit to call attention to victim advocacy issues and healthcare.

For governors’ spouses who are judges, picking issues to advocate gets tricky because of the need to avoid conflicts of interest.

“As far as taking on causes, I will be reluctant to do that,” said Midge Rendell, wife of Pennsylvania Gov.-elect Ed Rendell (D) and judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

Rendell said she prefers staying behind the scenes and working for non-profit educational organizations.

“I like going to the grocery store in my sweat-clothes and having people not know who I am,” Rendell said.

Several other spouses of incoming governors also plan to maintain their careers while serving as ambassadors for their state. For example, Wyoming first lady-elect Nancy Freudenthal will continue working as a lawyer. Maryland’s Kendel Ehrlich will manage special projects for cable company Comcast.

Ehrlich, a former public defender, said she also hopes to use the spotlight to bring attention to criminal justice issues and substance abuse. She’ll also have responsibilities related to hospitality at the mansion and intends to “open up the house to the public a bit more.”

Part of Ehrlich’s daily schedule will be spent with her toddler son, Drew. Another first lady-elect, Kim Henry of Oklahoma, also will be caring for young children at the mansion. Henry will take the children to school in the mornings, a 30-minute trip to the Shawnee public schools where she and her husband were high school sweethearts.

Henry said she expects life in the mansion to be like living in a fishbowl. Echoing the thoughts of many other governors’ spouses, Henry said her husband’s demanding job will be hard on family life and personal relationships.

“There’s going to be so much [competition] for his attention,” Henry said. “It’s not going to be fun having to schedule a date.”

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