Neall's defection underscores state GOPs quandary

November 14, 1999|By Barry Rascovar

BOBBY Neall called his move a misery reduction. He found out theres precious little room for a moderate -- even one with a very conservative resume on budget-and-tax issues -- in Marylands Republican Party.

That's why Mr. Neall-- former Republican minority leader in the House of Delegates, former Republican Anne Arundel County executive, current Republican state senator -- quit the state GOP two days ago to join the states majority party, the Democrats.

The loss of state Sen. Robert Neall to the Democratic Party is a crushing blow for state Republicans, though many GOP activists are happily shouting, good riddance, because they never liked his willingness to broker deals with Democrats and to put problem-solving ahead of party-building.

The ascendant wing of Marylands GOP insists say that only a pure, conservative party can wrest power from the Democrats. These party loyalists idolized Ellen R. Sauerbrey. They loved her unyielding stands on issues in the legislature and her unapologetic brand of conservatism. They never mention her failure to have much impact in Annapolis. In contrast, Mr. Neall -- ever the compromiser -- became one of the most powerful figures in the legislature, despite being a Republican.

As a Democrat, Mr. Neall's influence could soar. He already dominates Senate budget deliberations, along with state Sen. Barbara Hoffman of Baltimore. In his new party, hell find that his legislation suddenly has staying power and his opinions carry far greater weight.

As a Republican, you have to pick your spots when youre so outnumbered, he said. I can be more effective as a Democrat, though he notes that hell still be a frequent dissenter whose views remain outside the liberal orbit of many of his fellow Democrats.

That's one of the ironies. Whereas Republicans viewed the conservative Mr. Neall as too far left for their tastes, Democrats view him as a right-wing member of their party. The difference is that Democrats are happy to have him.

Where does Mr. Neall fit on the political spectrum? On fiscal matters, hes a tough conservative. On social issues, he can be a softie, if he thinks the money will be spent wisely. Maryland Business for Responsive Government, the most conservative, pro-business lobbying group in Annapolis, has its own slant. Among state senators, it gives Mr. Neall a 90, its second-highest cumulative rating.

So if he's so conservative in his voting record, why is Mr. Neall a pariah in an increasingly conservative Republican Party? Because hes viewed by doctrinaire conservatives as a collaborator. Why, Mr. Neall actually works closely with Democrats to hammer out compromises on controversial legislation! Hed actually accept half a loaf instead of standing up for his principles while going down to defeat.

They think if you negotiate a good deal and a good compromise, you're not being a good Republican, he said. They'd rather I vote no than find a solution that offers something to each side.

If Republicans want to be a viable party, they must embrace broader kinds of people, he said. Shades of Ronald Reagans big tent theory, which Texas Gov. George W. Bush seeks to revive.

Mr. Neall came to the conclusion that Maryland's GOP is too insular, too clubby for anyone with moderate tendencies. This sad situation was evident recently in Baltimore, where the local GOP's most viable mayoral candidate in a generation, David Tufaro, failed to attract much state GOP attention or money. State Republicans wrongly conclude that they shouldn't waste their time and money in liberal Baltimore.

That kind of narrow mindset sums up why the state GOP faces a gloomy future. Its conservative candidate for governor last year, Ms. Sauerbrey, got clobbered. Republicans lost ground in the General Assembly. They lost heavily in most suburbs. After the next redistricting, the GOP could lose one or two congressional seats.

There doesn't appear to be enough effort to reach out to middle-of-the-road voters. Richard D. Bennett, the state party chairman, who fits into the moderate category, has his hands full just fending off the partys absolutists.

Mr. Neall, meanwhile, could find life far more pleasant in a party with a big tent philosophy. His views will be tolerated, at least.

And given voters growing tendency to pick candidates on the basis of their achievements, not party labels, Mr. Neall may not have as much trouble winning re-election as diehard Republicans would like to think.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

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