GOP upset over training session

The Political Game

Database: Republicans were angry at first that a Democratic meeting was held in a union's building, but a bigger concern may be the purpose: a new computer program to help target voters.

March 05, 2002|By David Nitkin and Michael Dresser | David Nitkin and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

REPUBLICAN lawmakers were furious.

Each Democratic member of the General Assembly, along with staff, had been invited to a union headquarters in Annapolis for a training session. On the agenda: learning how to use a powerful computer program to target voters in this year's election.

The session was held last week in a conference room of the Maryland State Teachers Association, one of the largest and most active labor groups in the state, and one that is a reliable ally of the Democratic Party.

Wasn't this illegal political activity during a legislative session, GOP leaders wanted to know? Had the teachers union created a new program that it was using to pick off Republicans?

State law prohibits lawmakers from raising funds -- or receiving contributions, whether cash or services -- during the 90-day legislative session.

"It smells bad," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan, Howard County Republican. "The spirit of the law is you can't do indirectly what you're prevented from doing directly. Our hypothesis is the MSTA has created this software, and has turned it over to the Democrats."

Del. James F. Ports Jr., the House minority leader, took the speculation a step further. The teachers union wants to be kind to Democrats, he surmised, in exchange for favorable votes on legislation that would expand teacher collective bargaining rights.

The hypothesis, it turns out, was not entirely accurate. But Republican lawmakers still had reason to be upset.

The computer program was developed by the Maryland Democratic Party itself, and the party had borrowed the conference room from the union. Unlike incumbent candidates, political parties are not prohibited from raising money or accepting donations during the session.

State Democratic Party executive director Ann Beegle said the party used the room because it didn't have enough space in its building.

But apart from where the training was held, GOP lawmakers should be disturbed at the sophistication and resources behind the program -- which will be used to try to win voters at their expense in the coming months.

The party sent a computer disk to every incumbent Democratic lawmaker with the name, address, voter registration, phone number, date of birth and other information about each registered voter in their districts.

The information is especially valuable because each district has been altered through the redistricting process.

"It costs us a lot of money, and we give it to you for free," said Ryan O'Doherty, the party's information technology coordinator, speaking at the training session.

O'Doherty demonstrated how the database could be used to target voters in precincts where incumbents haven't run before or even to send out birthday cards to constituents. The program can spit out lists of the right doors to knock on -- say, women voters under age 45 who are registered independents.

"It helps you get the right message to the right people," he said. "You don't want to be focusing all your resources on Republicans who vote often because they're not going to vote for you."

Ports stood outside the teachers union offices, seeing who went in. But he wasn't privy to the most valuable information -- what was discussed inside.

"It is one of the services the Maryland Democratic Party provides to Democrats," Beegle said. "It's a great thing."

Political operative hired by Ehrlich for campaign

Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who continues to tantalize Republicans with the prospect of a race for governor, has hired a nationally known political operative with deep Maryland roots to help run his campaign for -- whatever.

James C. "Chip" DiPaula, who ran the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000, joins the Ehrlich campaign as a top aide without a specific title.

The choice of DiPaula could be another indication that Ehrlich is ready to give up his 2nd District congressional seat and challenge the state's dominant Democrats, who have held the State House since 1969.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is considered the Democratic front-runner, although Mayor Martin O'Malley isn't ruling out a primary contest.

Paul Schurick, Ehrlich's political director, said he and DiPaula will report directly to Ehrlich. Schurick said DiPaula is leading the final analysis leading up to the decision on Ehrlich's plans. He said DiPaula will stay no matter which office Ehrlich seeks.

"He's here for the long term, and I expect he will be part of the Ehrlich world for a long time," Schurick said.

DiPaula, 40, received high marks for his management of the 2000 convention. The Rodgers Forge native is a protege of former GOP National Chairman Jim Nicholson, who made him deputy chief of staff of the Republican National Committee in 1997.

DiPaula made his sole venture into GOP electoral politics in 1994, when he ran for the House of Delegates in a Towson-based district -- losing the primary.

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