Richard D. Bennett, a Baltimore lawyer who put the Maryland Republican Party on solid financial footing in the last year, announced yesterday he is stepping down as chairman after the presidential election in November.
Bennett, a moderate who has led the state GOP for just over a year, said he needed to devote more time to his law practice.
"My plate is getting fuller and fuller and fuller," he said. "Increasingly, I've realized that something's got to give."
Republican Party leaders were surprised by the announcement, which was faxed to many of them yesterday, and they praised his leadership.
"He's been excellent in bringing change to the party," said Senate Minority Leader Martin G. Madden, who represents Howard and Prince George's counties.
In particular, Madden pointed to Bennett's fund-raising, which allowed the party to hire staff and to move to Annapolis.
House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman of Howard County agreed with that assessment.
"He took the Republican party to the next level," Kittleman said.
A replacement will likely be elected at the state GOP's December convention.
Bennett, 52, of Ruxton has been criticized by some party members -- particularly the most conservative ones -- since taking over the party in December 1998.
He drew fire for successfully pushing to open Maryland's March 7 Republican primary to independent voters and for representing Democratic Del. Tony Fulton on federal mail fraud charges.
Some rank-and-file party members also grumbled that Bennett chose not to criticize Gov. Parris N. Glendening's recent appointment of Peter B. Krauser, the former chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, to the Court of Special Appeals.
The criticism was "not really" a Bennett said.
A former U.S. attorney, Bennett is now a criminal defense lawyer, heading the white-collar crime section of Miles & Stockbridge, a Baltimore-based firm.
He ran for Maryland attorney general in 1994, but lost to incumbent Democrat J. Joseph Curran Jr. He also was Ellen R. Sauerbrey's pick for lieutenant governor in her unsuccessful bid for governor in 1998.