Democrat toils gladly for Ehrlich

January 17, 1995|By Larry Carson and Glenn Small | Larry Carson and Glenn Small,Sun Staff Writers

Freshman Republican congressman Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. showed off his close ties to conservative House Speaker Newt Gingrich during last year's campaign, but when it came time to staff his local office, he chose a man steeped in the Democratic politics of Essex.

Robert M. Infussi Sr., who grew up with Essex Democrats Donald P. Hutchinson and Dennis F. Rasmussen and managed Mr. Rasmussen's campaigns for state Senate and county executive, now is working his old home turf for Mr. Ehrlich, who defeated Democrat Gerry L. Brewster in November in the 2nd District.

"I've been a Democrat all my life," Mr. Infussi said. But "this guy Bob Ehrlich is just like I was in Essex," he added, referring to Mr. Ehrlich's upbringing in a modest rowhouse neighborhood in Arbutus, not unlike the community where Mr. Infussi grew up on the other side of the county. Mr. Infussi's move is part of a trend in which more and more Democrats in Eastern Baltimore County find themselves supporting Republicans.

Indeed, even as Mr. Ehrlich received a helpful visit from fellow Republican Gingrich at a campaign fund-raiser, several prominent Dundalk Democrats, including Dels. John S. Arnick and Joseph "Sonny" Minnick and County Councilman Louis L. DePazzo, were out supporting him among county voters.

And voters in Essex's 6th District, long a Democratic stronghold, elected a Republican to the House of Delegates -- Kenneth Holt, who displaced E. Farrell Maddox, a two-term county House delegation chairman.

Mr. Ehrlich, who faces his next primary election in less than 14 months, said Mr. Infussi can help him with conservative Democratic voters in Eastern Baltimore County, the heart of his district. He will handle constituent complaints, working out of the congressman's new district office being set up in a shopping center at York Road and Seminary Avenue in Lutherville. The district also takes in Harford County, where Mr. Infussi now lives, and a small section of Anne Arundel County.

Mr. Infussi's political journey to the right started in 1990, when he suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Republicans as Mr. Rasmussen's executive secretary and campaign manager.

With the increasing numbers of conservative Democrats voting Republican, Mr. Infussi's move could be seen as a step toward a two-party system in areas traditionally dominated by Democrats.

But he said there is history behind it. When Mr. Ehrlich was elected a delegate from the north county in 1986, the same year Mr. Rasmussen became executive, he "was always there to give the county a vote," Mr. Infussi said. "He liked Dennis. We kept in touch."

Mr. Ehrlich asked for support in early 1994 when it appeared incumbent 2nd District Rep. Helen D. Bentley, a Republican who also appealed to Eastside Democrats, might run for governor or U.S. Senate.

Mr. Infussi ended up working as a volunteer in the Ehrlich campaign. However, the offer of a job after Mr. Ehrlich's November victory came as a surprise, he said, and caused a few stomach flutters at the thought of working for a Republican.

Those have now receded, he said.

"A lot of people voted for the person and didn't care about the party," Mr. Infussi said.

In explaining his support for Mr. Ehrlich, he said, "It just seemed like Bob would be a better candidate." In fact, it was a bit more complex.

Mr. Infussi and Mr. Rasmussen felt betrayed in 1990 when Rasmussen staff aide Harold Long worked hard for Mr. Brewster's election to the House of Delegates. They previously had helped Mr. Brewster and felt he and Mr. Long should have done more to help stave off Mr. Rasmussen's defeat by Roger B. Hayden. Last year, with Mr. Long strongly involved in Mr. Brewster's congressional campaign, both men found it easy to support Mr. Ehrlich.

Mr. Infussi said he has encountered little resistance to Mr. Ehrlich from Essex Democrats although he realizes that district office work is different than working in a campaign. He said Mr. Ehrlich has stressed separating the two.

Veteran Democrats such as state Sen. Michael Collins of Essex and Mr. Maddox said employing Mr. Infussi should help Mr. Ehrlich.

"He's bringing a person in who's familiar with the Eastside," Mr. Maddox said. "A trouble-shooter kind of person. He knows a lot of people in the county."

"He can add a personal dimension for the congressman with his knowledge of county issues," Mr. Collins said.

Mr. Ehrlich sees his election success over Mr. Brewster as due more "to my positions than for me being a Republican."

But in the end, he said, party affiliation just doesn't mean what it once did. The way Mr. Infussi and Mr. Rasmussen felt comfortable coming into his camp illustrates that, the congressman said.

"These guys understand, and I think the people of the Eastside understand that the era of the machine is over," he said. "People are far more interested in where you stand on the issues."

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