The Md. Republican Party's Wilderness Campaign

January 19, 2003|By C. Fraser Smith

LET US now praise foot soldiers in the Republican army.

Think of them as rear-guard defenders of the two-party system in Maryland.

Through more than three decades of Election Day famine, they soldiered on, holding the ark of their party's covenant above the ever-rising tide of Democratic domination.

They had to fight, often, against themselves, against some of their most talented members - men and women who succeeded by virtually denying their GOP affiliation. Other Republicans were more about religion than politics. The party wished to be rid of such distractions, yet it was never deep in talent or in numbers.

Many of these GOP warriors endured to see Wednesday's inauguration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the state's first Republican governor in 36 years and the first to win a statewide race since former U.S. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. in 1980.

Both men owe their success to partisans, well recognized and anonymous. These workers came to their task with skins as thick as their party's mascot. They all had attitude. All had the zeal of the true believer. How else to digest so much failure?

Their stories, taken together, form the foundation for Mr. Ehrlich's victory in November.

Samuel A. Culotta, now 79, the last Republican to be elected to the House of Delegates from a district totally within Baltimore, assumed the role of candidate cannon fodder year after year. He ran for mayor again and again, losing again and again.

"Somebody had to carry the banner," he said Wednesday as he waited for Mr. Ehrlich to be sworn in. "There was no one else - except the lunatic fringe. My job was to knock them out."

Calvert County's Joyce Lyons Terhes' job was to recruit and train candidates. She spent much of her middle years in Holiday Inn function rooms asking smart people to believe they could win in what many called the People's Republic of Maryland.

Helen Delich Bentley believed. The former congresswoman kept running for Congress until the political identity of her county changed from Democrat to Reagan Democrat. Steelworkers and longshoremen finally saw themselves reflected in her grit.

Some of her mates thought she was too close to Democrats, a charge made against Mr. Mathias - who was called a "liberal swine" by one of the party's purists. Anne Arundel County's Robert R. Neall, the former delegate and senator, and Mr. Neall's mentor, the late John A. Cade of Anne Arundel, heard similar complaints. Mr. Neall, whose bipartisanship saved the state's fiscal health on many occasions, finally switched affiliations - and then lost in the Ehrlich landslide in his county.

Maintaining the permanent Republican presence fell to quote masters: If you were out, you only got into the daily game with pithy, attitude-rich observations. Carol L. Hirschburg became the primary voice of Republicanism in the state.

"Given our minority status, we had to establish legitimacy," she said. "No one paid any attention to us. It was like we weren't there."

Sen. Robert Kittleman of Howard County was there. He urged Republicans to believe they were close to a hidden "tipping point" - a favorable ratio between Democrats to Republicans, which made running for office more than a noble gesture.

The first proof was Senator Mathias, one of the last truly progressive Republicans, a man who knew that, in Maryland, you just couldn't win without Democratic votes.

Governor Ehrlich proved that again this year.

The question was always: How do we win in a 2-1 Democratic state without sacrificing our identity? Recently, the Democrats have been asking the same question: Can we win in Maryland as classic Democrats? Talk about change.

Against derisive doubt of their sincerity, the party of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass tried to win support among African-Americans. It sent party stalwart Victor Clark of Baltimore into the lists in search of converts. He persisted, to little avail.

This year's election of Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, an African-American, gives him the sort of credibility a recruiter needs.

None of it would have happened without Dick Hug, the man who raised record sums for Ellen Sauerbrey twice and who was available yet again this year.

Ms. Sauerbrey found the tipping point statewide. Her near-win in 1994 showed the underlying strength of Republicans and disaffected Democrats. Her races - like Sam Culotta's - kept her party in the game.

"In the 1970s," says Ms. Hirschburg, "when I told people I was a Republican, they used to laugh at me.

"They're not laughing now."

C. Fraser Smith is a columnist for The Sun. His column appears Sundays.

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