Romancing voters failed, so GOP woos opposition

May 16, 1994|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Sun Staff Writer Staff writer John Rivera contributed to this article.

If you can't beat them, recruit them. That appears to be the tactic Republicans are employing against Democrats, who have dominated Anne Arundel County politics for years.

At the urging of prominent GOP officials and activists, County Council Chairman C. Edward Middlebrooks formally changed his party affiliation Friday from Democrat to Republican. The move appears to be a prelude to a run for the state Senate against Democratic incumbent Michael J. Wagner.

State Delegate John G. Gary, a Millersville Republican, said he and other party leaders have approached several Democratic TC elected officials who have Republican-like voting records -- including Mr. Middlebrooks, Del. John C. Astle and County Councilman David G. Boschert -- about switching party affiliation.

In most cases, Mr. Gary said he "talked until I was blue in the face," but each defection such as Mr. Middlebrooks' helps the GOP expand its political base by opening the door to more crossover voters. The Democrats have about 50 percent more registered voters than the Republicans.

Mr. Middlebrooks' switch is particularly important in North County, where the Democrats are strongest, Mr. Gary said, noting that Mr. Wagner has run unopposed for 12 years.

"Eddie gives us a North County presence that we need," he said.

John Greiber, a member of a GOP recruitment committee that had courted Mr. Middlebrooks the past two months, said the switch has countywide ramifications. Because Mr. Wagner is the senior Democratic elected official, "it means there is a crack in the foundation" of their party, he said.

What makes such defections possible? Even leading Democrats agree that philosophically they are not that far apart from their Republican adversaries.

"If you go to one of our Democratic clubs, they certainly don't reflect the view of the national party," state Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, a Brooklyn Park Democrat. "That's why our national candidates never do well in Anne Arundel County."

Mr. Gary agreed: "That's why we have so much trouble beating them. I wish they were all flaming liberals, but they're not."

Mr. Astle, an Annapolis Democrat, acknowledged last week that he had been approached informally and asked to switch parties.

He said he does not believe party affiliation means as much to voters in state and local elections as a candidate's political philosophy. Ironically, it takes on greater meaning once the candidate is elected.

"It becomes apparent to get a leadership position [in the legislature], to get an entree into those circles, you need a 'D' on your team shirt," Mr. Astle said.

The leadership of the Democratic-controlled General Assembly would never have let him chair Anne Arundel County's 13-member contingent to the House of Delegates or sit as the vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee if he were a Republican, he said.

That's one reason Democratic officials believe Mr. Middlebrooks' switch is short-sighted and could cost him the council chairmanship.

Councilman Boschert of Crownsville said he will seek to strip Mr. Middlebrooks today of his leadership post.

The chairman is traditionally a member of the majority party; the Democrats still hold four of the seven council seats.

Democratic officials also said Mr. Middlebrooks' change in loyalties could backfire with voters, because it could appear to be motivated more by expedience than a change of philosophy.

By switching parties, Mr. Middlebrooks avoids a Democratic primary against Mr. Wagner, in which other party members would almost certainly throw their support to the senator. By contrast, GOP officials have promised him organizational help, volunteers and joint appearances with prominent, state and national Republican leaders.

One reason Mr. Middlebrooks seems unwilling to seek a second term on the council is that a strong Democratic opponent, Glen Burnie businessman James "Ed" DeGrange, has been drafted by Mr. Wagner.

"If there is a chance of losing his council seat" to someone on Mr. Wagner's ticket, "I can see why he'd think he might as well run directly against Mike," Mr. Jimeno said.

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