Essay 4: Sauerbray – Ellen Sauerbray: Wonder Woman or Mere Mortal?

NOTE: This article was written by me in 2006 while my wife and I were living in Pine Bluffs, WY. Who is Ellen Sauerbray?  Why am I including an older piece here on my new blog? To find out, please read on.        

 Ellen Sauerbray: Wonder Woman or Mere Mortal? © Anthony J. Sacco, Sr., 2006. 

PINE BLUFFS ─ On September 1, 2005, seated behind his desk in the Oval Office, a smiling President Bush announced his appointment of Ellen Richmond Sauerbray to become Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration. At the time, Sauerbray was serving as Ambassador to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. Almost immediately, Refugees International, Population Action International, Salon Magazine and the Washington Post, spouting the vitriol for which the Left is known, voiced opposition.

What, exactly, had Ellen Sauerbray done to collect such powerful far left opponents? To begin: for three years, she had effectively represented the Administration on international women’s issues. Staunchly opposed to abortion, she caused a stir among assorted pro-abortion activist groups with her efforts to amend the Women’s Rights Declaration hammered out in China, to drop language stating that women’s rights include a right to abortion.

          In November 2005, newly returned from a conference of First Ladies of the Americas in Paraguay where she represented Laura Bush, Sauerbray appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But her confirmation was held up by a disgruntled Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who seems dissatisfied with any nomination this President makes.

          Although appointments to international delegations and deputy level State Department positions don’t require the advice and consent of the Senate, Assistant Secretaries of State posts do. Serving in the position means Sauerbray oversees a $700 million dollar budget dealing with refugee protection, resettlement and humanitarian aid.    

          Who exactly is this woman in whom Mr. Bush reposed such confidence? For the answer, we need to turn back the clock to . . .  a balmy Baltimore evening in June 1955, as the graduating class of Towson High School in Baltimore County, Maryland (that’s its photo at the beginning of this piece), filed from the stage, 420 strong ─ Ellen Richmond and me among them ─ and burst from high school as if shot from a cannon, the strains of the school’s song ringing in their young ears: 

Our strong bonds can ne’er be broken,

Formed at Towson High,                                                                            

Far surpassing wealth unspoken,

Sealed by friendships tie.

         The class theme? That was from Shakespeare: “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances; one man in his time plays many parts . . .”

           Hardly original. But this was ‘55. The kids were clean-cut and unsophisticated. Most had dads who went off to work daily and moms who stayed home and took care of the house and them; Ozzie and Harriet was the favorite TV sitcom, divorce was practically unheard of, drug users were shunned by their peers, and kids stayed in school because, eager to face life’s challenges, they actually wanted to learn. Ellen’s classmates would go on to become actors, authors, doctors, lawyers, military and civilian pilots, engineers, nurses, writers, and even movie producers.

          That night in ‘55, as Ellen Richmond changed from cap and gown into her Prom dress, could she have guessed what her future held? Years as a high school Biology instructor, a Republican delegate in the Legislature of a predominantly Democrat state, minority leader in that same House of Delegates, Maryland state Chairwoman for Mr. Bush’s 2000 campaign, two runs for Governor and two near misses, an appointment by the President as Ambassador to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, and culminating perhaps, like the last act of an exciting Broadway play, with this latest appointment.

          Not bad for a kid from northeast Baltimore, whose father was a steel worker and whose mother was a stay-at-home mom. Ellen’s father, Edgar Richmond, toiled for years in the Hot Strip Mill Department of now defunct Bethlehem Steel Corporation. A union man, he worked his way up to a job as foreman. When the corporation closed for a year, he drove a taxi to put bread on his family’s table. Called back when the mill reopened, he suffered a serious illness, first erroneously diagnosed as Multiple Sclerosis, and died of cancer in May 1977.

          “The family had some tough times,” Ellen recalled, “but we stayed close.” One of the best things about those early years? “Playing in the back yard with my dog, Dusty,” a black and white, aah . . . dog.

          Ellen’s family moved to a row house in suburban Towson in 1951. Her parents ordered the daily newspaper delivered. It was ─ by young Wilmer Sauerbray, a neighbor kid who, years later, would marry their daughter.

          In high school, Ellen “. . . liked the science subjects.” Her involved parents made sure she worked hard. A highly motivated student, she was a leader among her classmates. Membership in the drama society allowed her to perform in high school plays, a skill she’d put to good use later.

          Her favorite teacher during high school, John Dueber, a Chemistry instructor and local evening radio talk show personality, opened her inquiring mind to the world of ideas, as all good teachers do. Ellen set her heart on becoming a teacher. But for that, college was necessary. “I always wanted to go to college,” Ellen recalled. “But I didn’t know if my family could afford it. Mom and Dad committed to pay for one year. [After that] I could go toTowson State, where Mom later worked [and tuition would be free].”

          Ellen traveled fifty miles from home to attend Western Maryland College, a Methodist school in Westminster, Maryland. A partial scholarship and a stint working in the college dining hall helped pay the freight. “I had to work hard to get through,” she said.

          At college, Ellen excelled. She chose her major in sophomore year and sailed through school in four years, typical back then.

           At WMC, Ellen’s Biology teacher, Isabelle Isenogle, Ph.D, helped shape her future. “She made Biology a fascinating subject, and because of her I changed my major to Biology,” Ellen relates. In 1959 she graduated Summa cum Laude, the proud holder of a Bachelor of Arts degree. Was she excited about having done so well? “[Yes. And] I couldn’t wait to start teaching,” she said.  

          After college, Ellen married her “paper boy” sweetheart, Wilmer “Wil” Sauerbray. At the time, Wil worked as a Mechanical Engineer for Black and Decker, a nationally known toolmaker headquartered in Towson. The couple is still together, testimony to their commitment to each other and their respect for their marriage vows.

          In the fall of 1959, Ellen embarked upon a teaching career, which lasted until 1964. During that time, she taught Biology. Was she a good teacher? From her campaign literature, second run for Governor of Maryland, 1998: “But she did more than just teach Biology. She taught her students about life; about a commitment to excellence; about self-discipline and self-respect.”

          When asked about her teaching days, Ellen nodded sagely: “Today’s kids are no different than my former students. They want to be challenged.”

          In the summer of 1968, Ellen and Wil visited Wil’s relatives in Bavaria, West Germany and Thuringen, East Germany. The Berlin Wall still divided East and West Berlin, and Germany was still split into sectors controlled by the U.S., Britain, and the Soviet Union. The trip changed Ellen’s life.

          During their three month jaunt, she saw, first-hand, the contrast between lifestyles. Passing through dreary checkpoints at the ugly Berlin Wall, she started thinking about the importance of personal freedom.

          An article about her in the alumni magazine at WMC ─ now McDaniel College, re-named after a primary benefactor ─ said this: “While West German farmers worked their land at night using headlights on huge modern combines, East German workers punched time clocks and rushed home from their non-productive collective farms to work their tiny garden plots with hoes, eager to reap what they could from the only thing they owned.” (The Hill, fall 2004).

          This European odyssey taught Ellen: “that when government deprives people of personal freedom and property rights, it destroys incentive, risk-taking, capital investment and economic growth.”

          Back home, she lost no time pursuing her new interest ─ politics ─ as a Republican Party activist, supporting Ronald Reagan’s 1968 presidential bid. That led to her election to the Republican State Central Committee. A fiscal and social conservative, she also helped found the Maryland Taxpayers Coalition, and accepted leadership roles in other Republican groups.

          In 1978, she was elected to Maryland’s House of Delegates. At the time, women were rare in Maryland politics. Since The Line State was resoundingly Democrat, Ellen ran on issues that resonated with voters across the political spectrum; lowering taxes and reducing the size of state government. For the next sixteen years, voters returned her to Annapolis.  By ‘86, her cohorts in the House thought enough of her to elect her Republican Minority Leader, a post she held until 1994. While there, she helped instill in Republican legislators enough backbone to articulate a coherent Republican message for Maryland voters. This would help immensely during her first run for governor.

          That first run happened in 1994. Lacking widespread name recognition, she trekked from one end of Maryland to the other, speaking to whomever she could round up to listen. Before long, she was filling halls and raising campaign dollars with her message of fiscal responsibility, lower taxes and less government. When smoke from a bruising primary campaign cleared, she had wrested the Republican nomination from tired Congressional House member, Helen Delich Bentley, who’d been the odds-on favorite. Nationally syndicated columnist George Will promptly dubbed Ellen, “Maryland’s Margaret Thatcher.”  

          Maryland had had no Republican governor for twenty-five years, and no woman had ever been its governor. Yet Ellen lost to Parris Glendening and an entrenched Democrat organization by only 5,993 out of 1.25 million votes.

          About her 1994 campaign and near miss, those in the know credit her with revitalizing the Maryland Republican Party, and energizing and encouraging its grass-roots supporters. Some claim that Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert Ehrlich was able to use the spadework done by Ellen to step into the Governor’s mansion four years later.

          Republican Party workers were not the only ones energized by her surprisingly good showing in 1994. Ellen was, too. So much so that she was itching for a rematch four years later.

          Her preparations began early. The editors of the Baltimore Sun noticed: “. . . A second Sauerbray for governor campaign, though, would be markedly different. She’ll be running against an incumbent, which is never easy. Public ire toward the Democratic Party has subsided. Republicans remain the minority party here by a 2 to 1 margin. While a promise to give voters a 24 percent income tax cut nearly got her elected in 1994, this may not be the burning issue of 1998 . . . Some Republicans worry that Ms. Sauerbray may still be regarded by undecided voters as too far right. The candidate scoffs at this notion. Still, Democrats tagged her with that label in 1994 and it worked.”

          Ever willing to give Republicans advice, the Sun’s editors continued: “The best way to overcome this is for Mrs. Sauerbray to enunciate policy positions that clearly place her in the mainstream of the conservative movement . . . “

          And a Washington Times, reporter wrote: “. . . in sharp contrast to that [previous] race, Mrs. Sauerbray appears set to make tax cuts a smaller part of her second campaign for governor. She’ll apparently focus on education and try to soften her public image, damaged by tough talk during that campaign and her aggressive challenge of the results.” (5/21/97). This article was penned the day after Ellen kicked off her second campaign for governor with a five-stop, statewide blitz.

          Ellen did recognize the need to reach out to voters across a broad spectrum. “[While] I would never . . . take the Republican base for granted,” she said (Baltimore Sun, 5/18/97), “I believe it’s essential to broaden the base to win in November.” Attempting to do just that, she was interviewed by Jeremy Redmon (Washington Times, 8/4/97). Redmon wrote: “. . . although proud of her conservative values, Mrs. Sauerbray says she would not attempt drastic changes in current law if elected. Though she opposes abortion and gun control, she says she wouldn’t try to ban either. She says she is realistic: in polls, most Maryland voters favor legalized abortion and gun control laws.”   

          Her effort to re-cast herself didn’t work. Despite a loyal following, a statewide organization that sprang into action, and the kind of name recognition for which any candidate would kill, her attempt to “place herself in the mainstream of the conservative movement” by appealing to moderate Republicans and Reagan Democrats while holding onto her base supporters, failed. She lost again, this time by ten percentage points. Discouraged, she renounced her ambition to become Maryland’s first female governor and returned to her Baldwin home ─ for awhile. “I haven’t had much of a personal life in a long time,” she commented (Baltimore Sun, 11/11/98). “There could be a temptation to kick back . . . but that would last me about 30 days. The odds are I’ll soon be looking for a new challenge.”

          Ellen had nothing for which to be ashamed. Listen to Maryland’s Republican Governor Bob Ehrlich, elected in 2002. “Ellen Sauerbrey altered Maryland’s political landscape in a manner unmatched by few women in Maryland’s history.”

          On a pleasant morning in September 1998, Ellen trekked to Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, a bedroom community called home by many who work in Washington, D.C. It was two months prior to the presidential election. She raised $300,000 dollars at a breakfast ─ with a little help from her friends. One of them was George Herbert Walker Bush.

          Chaired by host, J.W. Marriott, Jr., CEO of Marriott International, Inc. this wildly successful fundraiser’s guest list read like Who’s Who in American Politics; Senator Robert Packwood (R-O), Governor Edward Schafer (R-ND), Representative Thomas (Tad) Davis, (R-VA), Representative Robert Ehrlich (R-MD), and many state and local dignitaries. Republicans eagerly turned out to support Ellen, thinking she had a shot at the governorship of a state securely in the Democrat’s column since the days of Spiro Agnew.

          Called upon to welcome the former president of the United States, Ellen introduced him as having brought “dignity, honor and decency” to the White House. Referring to Mr. Clinton’s antics, she remarked: “We look forward to the day when we can once again be proud of the presidency as we were with you.” She would get her wish in the person of Mr. Bush’s son, George. Two years later, the younger Bush would help her launch another new career.

          President George W. Bush has always been an astute judge of competence. That showed in his Supreme Court selections of John Roberts and Samuel Alito. It’s not surprising that shortly after moving to the White House in 2000, he tapped Ellen to represent his Administration at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights Conference in Geneva. Pleased with her expertise and energy, he quickly followed up by appointing her to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. In that capacity, she represented the Administration in forums addressing social, educational, economic, and political concerns of women. In 2003 alone, she traveled toTblisi, Georgia and Buenos Aires, Argentina, speaking on behalf of women’s rights, mentoring women’s organizations about how they might become involved in the political process.

          Recognizing that success entails taking risks and accepting both victory and defeat, she delivered a powerful message to audiences throughout the world: “Women are just as capable as men,” she said. “You can make a difference, but only if you believe you can and are willing to work to make it happen.”

          2004, the 10th Anniversary of the International Year of the Family, saw her attending a series of regional dialogues in Mexico City, Stockholm, Geneva, and Kuala Lumpur, preparing for the U.N.’s International Conference for the Family in Doha, Qatar, later that year. Ellen is proud of her preparatory work on that conference, which produced the Doha Declaration, affirming the family as the natural unit of society, entitled to protection by the state, as specified in Article 16(3) of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Doha Report calls upon all nations to uphold, preserve, and defend the institution of marriage.

          Ellen’s confirmation hearing began in early November 2005. She wasn’t flying beneath anyone’s radar. The president of Refugees International said Mr. Bush’s plan to appoint Ellen to this major State Department post suggests “a weakening of the Administration’s commitment to refugee protection.” He apparently believed that Sauerbrey’s opposition to abortion was the only reason that the President appointed her. While acknowledging that she’d been a strong advocate for women in several areas, including education and economic and political empowerment, he said: “Before Senate confirmation, lawmakers [must] find out whether she is up to the task of handling the Administration’s refugee and humanitarian policies.”

          So battle lines were formed; those who abhor Ellen’s steely advocacy of women’s rights and pro-life stance on one side, the Administration, pro-life advocates and those who know her as a strong, effective leader on the other.

          At Ellen’s hearing, Democrats repeatedly voiced concern that the post of Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration had been vacant for so long. Yet they agreed to Senator Boxer’s request and postponed voting until after their winter break. So on January 4, 2006, a disgusted George Bush exercised an option available to all presidents; the recess appointment. Sauerbray will serve in that office until the current Congressional session ends.

          One thing’s certain. Ellen Sauerbray, perhaps the latest, real life version of TV’s Wonder Woman, has acquitted herself well in her new role, as she has in all the other roles in which she has found herself during her colorful career.         

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