KENSINGTON — Kensington.-- Political parties really don't matter, according to a recent article in The Sun about a Democrat who has gone to work for the freshman Republican congressman, Robert Ehrlich. At election time, too, we hear advice to ignore a candidate's party affiliation and ''vote for the best individual.''
Anyone who thinks that Mr. Ehrlich's political party doesn't really matter wasn't on Capitol Hill when he voted to make Newt Gingrich speaker of the House of Representatives.
Representative Ehrlich, whom I know from my experience in Annapolis, is a bright, well-intentioned person. Nonetheless, he will be forced to sing in the Gingrich choir or become an off-key, off-stage voice warbling his tunes to no one. In a Democratic-controlled congress Republican Helen Bentley may have been able to get away with her pro-labor votes. It will be interesting to see if Mr. Ehrlich can truly represent his working- class constituents in a Gingrich House of Representatives.
It is ironic that as more and more Americans have broken with their traditional patterns of party affiliation, Capitol Hill has become increasingly partisan.
However, it's not just on partisan Capitol Hill that parties matter. Ever since our country was founded, political parties have served the important role of bringing unity to what is naturally a divisive arena. They have been forums for debate on the central issues of the day, mechanisms for formulating public policy and training grounds for future elected officials. Unlike countries such as Italy, with its fractured political system, the two-party structure in America has created a relatively stable environment and a political continuity that has allowed us to move forward and to prosper.
Those who see ''progress'' in the weakening of political parties fail to see that party weakness has played a pivotal role in turning many elections into mere auctions. Without the broad-based, grass-roots, citizen participation usually evident in the traditional political party, money dictates. Michael Huffington in California was able to overwhelm opposition with his personal fortune despite having no real community roots. He came within a few thousand votes of buying a seat in the United States Senate.
While none of us wants a return to the party bosses or machine politics of the past, let's not destroy the party institutions that have been such an important part of making our country strong and stable.
Overreacting to the closed, boss-controlled party systems of the past has pushed the pendulum too far toward a total disregard of party affiliation. Certainly it is important to pay attention to individual candidates. But in eliminating blind party loyalties, let's not also lose the valuable aspects of our political parties.
We need citizens to take back the election process. We need an underlying, unifying party structure that fosters grass-roots citizen participation. We need political parties that are open and competitive so that the best leaders can emerge. We need to reinvigorate our political parties if we are going to successfully meet the challenges facing our state and our nation.
Mary Boergers, a former Democratic member of both houses of the Maryland General Assembly, was a candidate for governor last year.