Robert Neall makes switch

Veteran legislator says going Democrat was personal decision

November 13, 1999|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

State Sen. Robert R. Neall became a Democrat yesterday, declaring that he had been made to feel increasingly "uncomfortable and unwelcome" in the Republican Party he served for almost three decades.

The veteran legislator and former Anne Arundel County executive, long a target of complaints from GOP conservatives, said he had made "not a political decision but a personal one."

Neall, 51, said that in the Democratic Party "there's less of an expectation of adherence to straight down-the-line litmus-test-type issues."

The senator changed his affiliation in a quiet manner -- no news conference, no photographs with leading Democrats and none of the hoopla that often accompanies an officeholder's defection. He announced the change in a letter, tinged with sadness, to Maryland Republican Chairman Richard D. Bennett.

"I have reached a point in my life where ideas are more important than ideology; civility and toleration toward others is preferable to confrontation," Neall wrote.

"While I have from time to time felt uncomfortable and unwelcome in the Republican Party, those feelings have clearly worsened in recent years to the point of leading me to this decision."

The District 33 senator's switch, while expected for several days, was a blow to the state Republican Party -- numerically and symbolically. It drew a swift reaction from Paul D. Ellington, the party's executive director, who accused Neall of a "breach of faith."

Republican National Committeewoman Ellen R. Sauerbrey, former gubernatorial candidate and longtime Neall nemesis, issued an acerbic farewell:

"I wish Bob Neall good luck as he attempts to take his conservative, pro-life, pro-gun and anti-union boss views into the Democratic Party. Perhaps he can succeed in moving the increasingly liberal Maryland Democratic leadership in our direction."

Neall spent much of yesterday in his office on the mostly Republican fourth floor of the James Senate Office Building, fielding calls from constituents.

Down the hall, someone had removed Neall's photograph from the wall, leaving two empty hooks among the portraits of his Republican colleagues -- their ranks now diminished to 14 in the 47-member Senate.

"It wasn't a very good picture," Neall cracked.

Neall said he had been mulling over the switch for more than a year. "One of the things I was dealing with was how to get this knot out of my stomach," he said, adding that he now feels a "tremendous relief."

In his letter, Neall told Bennett, "I realize that the Democratic Party also is not perfect." But in an interview yesterday, he expressed confidence that his moderate to conservative views will be accepted in the majority party.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend issued statements welcoming Neall to their party.

"Senator Neall is a moderate, pragmatic public servant who is always willing to build bridges with members of both parties to get things done," Glendening said.

It was that strain of pragmatism, rather than Neall's voting record, that infuriated staunch conservatives -- who reacted with the type of statement that helped drive him out of the party.

"He's been [selling] himself to the Democrats for so long. It's about time they made him an honest man," said Republican activist Carol Hirschburg, a former Sauerbrey campaign aide.

Former Senate Minority Leader F. Vernon Boozer, a moderate ousted in the 1998 Republican primary by a conservative challenger, said Neall's switch was "a tremendous loss" to the GOP.

"I just think the Republican Party in the state of Maryland has drifted too far to the right and they've left many of us uncomfortable with our party affiliation," said Boozer, who said he's been giving "serious thought" to becoming a Democrat.

Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a moderate from Montgomery County, said he also had thought about switching parties but decided to stay in the GOP. "Hopefully this will serve as a wake-up call to some in our party," Hogan said.

The senate's newest Democrat has been one of the state's most prominent Republicans for decades. He served 12 years in the House of Delegates, including four as minority leader, before being narrowly defeated in a 1986 run for Congress.

Neall bounced back to win election as county executive in 1990, serving a single term before retiring voluntarily. He re-entered public life in 1996 after the death of his mentor, Sen. John A. Cade, winning appointment to fill out Cade's term.

Neall said that about 90 percent of the Republicans who called him expressed disappointment and hurt but that some were angry.

"The ones that are expressing anger are curiously the same people who don't think I belong in the party anyway," Neall said.

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