Resigning GOP chief sees gains, if no wins Democrats still hold Baltimore, but margin is less, Blumberg says

October 16, 1998|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

For the last decade and a half, David R. Blumberg has been one of Baltimore's foremost champions of lost causes.

Next month, two weeks after the election, Blumberg is stepping down after 16 years as head of the city's Republican Party.

That's 16 years without a Republican elected to the City Council. Sixteen years without a Republican elected to the General Assembly. Sixteen years without a Republican elected sheriff, court clerk or register of wills.

The lack of GOP success in an overwhelmingly Democratic city is nothing new -- no Republican has been elected in Baltimore since Theodore R. McKeldin won the mayoralty in 1963 -- and is not likely to change on Nov. 3. Of 31 State House seats in districts solely or predominantly in the city, Republican candidates filed for just five, and no Republicans are running for any courthouse jobs.

But Blumberg, a 42-year-old librarian at Baltimore City Detention Center, is keeping his bearded chin up.

During his tenure, he noted, the Democratic advantage in voter registration has been reduced -- from 11 1/2 to 1 in 1982 to 8 1/2 to 1. A closed Democratic club in North Baltimore is now the Hampden Republican Club. And the GOP has a permanent headquarters in Charles Village, something it didn't have before Blumberg took over.

"You have to crawl before you can walk; you have to walk before you can run. Right now, we're at the walking stage," he said recently. "If Ellen Sauerbrey gets elected [governor], it could move to a brisk pace."

Praise from both parties

Officials of both parties praise the determination of Blumberg.

"I'm sorry to hear he's stepping down," said Robert W. Curran, vice chair of Baltimore's Democratic Party. "I wish him well. He did the best he could with what he had to work with."

Joyce Lyons Terhes, head of the state Republican Party, said she can't think of anyone who has been a local party chairman as long as Blumberg has.

"He's going to be missed," she said. "He's got a tremendous personality, he's a hard worker and he's dedicated to the cause. He believes in a strong two-party system."

"I'm not burned out," Blumberg said, but he added, "It seems like a good time to move on. There are people interested in doing what I'm doing."

With Blumberg, the question isn't so much why he's leaving but how he's managed to keep going as long as he has.

"I'm very patient," is his answer. "And I have a sense of humor."

The latter comes across immediately. He wants to meet for an interview at a downtown restaurant rather than the jail library, lest he be miscast as some sort of champion of the downtrodden.

"I hate that story -- 'Republican with a heart,' " he said with a diabolical-sounding laugh. "I have no heart."

At the GOP's annual Lincoln Day event downtown, a reception rather than a sit-down dinner, Blumberg typically tells his guest speaker, "I can guarantee you a standing ovation."

He once told a man considering a primary challenge to Samuel A. Culotta, for years the GOP sacrificial lamb for mayor, that the man would lose by 6 to 1.

"How do you know that?" the man asked.

"Because I know six people who will turn out for Sam, and I assume you'll vote for yourself," Blumberg said.

Blumberg grew up in Mount Washington, one of three children. Despite a liberal upbringing, he became a registered Republican in 1974, the year Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. He largely credits his admiration for then-U.S. Sen. Charles McC. "Mac" Mathias Jr., a GOP moderate.

Challenging stereotypes

Then, as now, he reveled in challenging political stereotypes.

"People think if you're a Republican, you're rich, you're a lawyer, you're a gentile and you don't know anything about city living," he said. "Surprise! Hel-lo!"

Although Blumberg concedes he is more moderate than most Republicans, he says he has never considered switching parties.

He does admit casting ballots twice for Democrats: for Benjamin L. Cardin, when he was in the House of Delegates, and state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman. "My hand quivered," he said.

Blumberg ran unsuccessfully for the House of Delegates in 1978. He became head of the city's Republican Party four years later when no one else wanted the job.

In 1987, unable to find a willing candidate, he ran against Mary Pat Clarke for City Council president, coming within 87,683 votes of the popular former two-term councilwoman. Among his campaign slogans: "Nothing happens to you when you vote Republican."

Two years later, he married Ellie Wong, whom he met three years before at -- where else? -- a statewide Republican convention; the couple lives in Roland Park.

During his tenure as Republican chair, Blumberg said, the closest his party came to electing a candidate for public office was in 1990, when James Brewster got 46 percent of the vote against John A. Pica Jr. in the state Senate race in the 43rd Legislative district.

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