GOP leader to visit here next month RNC chairman's March 16 stop is first to Maryland

Sauerbrey arranged event

Dinner is party's biggest fund-raiser for the year

February 18, 1997|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

Jim Nicholson, the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, has scheduled an appearance with Howard County Republicans -- among the strongest GOP organizations in the state -- for his first official visit to Maryland.

Several local party groups have sought Nicholson, a Colorado conservative virtually unknown in national politics until his election to the party post last month, said GOP national committeewoman Ellen R. Sauerbrey, an early Nicholson supporter.

But Sauerbrey helped Nicholson choose Howard -- home to several key supporters and a prospective rival for the 1998 gubernatorial nomination, Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

"Howard is certainly one of the strongest Republican counties in Maryland," said Sauerbrey. "It's much easier to make the case that this was a place where the local party has worked very hard, and deserves recognition from the national party."

Nicholson's visit to Howard is scheduled March 16, at the party's Lincoln Day Dinner at Turf Valley Hotel & Conference Center in Ellicott City. The dinner is the party's biggest annual fund raiser, typically drawing more than 250 party activists. Tickets are $40.

The next month, in April, Nicholson also plans an appearance at a Lincoln Day Reception held by Baltimore City Republicans.

But it is Howard that is the showpiece.

"Howard County is really, to me, the model of the rest of the state," said Baltimore City Republican Chairman David R. Blumberg.

The county's Republicans "really run a well-oiled machine," he said.

Party officials credit Sauerbrey and RNC deputy chief of staff Chip DiPaula -- a Republican activist from Rodgers Forge and former Sauerbrey staffer -- for arranging both visits.

"Being close to Washington helps," said Maryland Republican Chairwoman Joyce Lyons Terhes, "but for Jim to make the commitment for a Lincoln Day Dinner and Lincoln Day Reception -- I'm just thrilled."

The last time an RNC chairman visited Howard was in 1986, when then-chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., spoke at that year's Lincoln Day Dinner.

Nicholson is touring the country, building his reputation and rapport with local activists. He replaced Haley Barbour, who in four years as RNC chairman became a prominent national spokesman and strategist for the party -- and a fixture on network news shows.

Nicholson is starting off with a far lower national profile, but DiPaula says Nicholson plans to work extensively with local activists around the country to broaden the party's base to include more women and minorities.

In recent elections, the "gender gap" -- women generally preferring Democrats -- has hurt Republicans badly in state and national elections.

That makes Howard an interesting stop. Republicans are strong in the county in part because of the strategic work of Joan Athen and Carol Arscott, chairwomen of the central committee from 1982 to 1992 -- years when Republicans went from oblivion to near-dominance in Howard.

The Republicans' ascension was completed with the 1994 election: The party now claims the Howard county executive's office, the majority of the County Council and more than half of the county's State House delegation.

The two top Republicans in the House of Delegates, Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman and Minority Whip Robert L. Flanagan, are from Howard.

For Howard Republicans, their biggest problem now is each other.

Last fall, they split during the brutal and divisive fight for two seats on the Circuit Court. And for 1998, at least four prominent Republicans are considering bids to replace Ecker, whose second -- and by law, final -- term ends in 1998.

Ecker's prospective candidacy for governor also could rip open the party.

The county executive has not announced his candidacy, but he is assembling an exploratory committee, including top party moderates -- state Sen. Robert R. Neall of Anne Arundel County and former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, whom Sauerbrey beat in the 1994 gubernatorial primary.

Despite support from such prominent statewide figures, Ecker may have trouble holding onto his Howard County base: Flanagan, Kittleman and Clarksville Sen. Martin G. Madden are Sauerbrey supporters.

Many other Howard politicians and activists have not declared their allegiances.

Sauerbrey denies it, but that battle for Ecker's base may have been a factor in her decision to favor Howard for a Nicholson visit.

"She's no stupid person when it comes to campaigning," said Athen, the former party chairwoman and longtime Ecker supporter.

Pub Date: 2/18/97

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