Ehrlich says Bartenfelder talked of joining GOP

County councilman denies he is considering a switch to challenge Smith in 2006

March 18, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

In a meeting with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Baltimore County Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder discussed switching parties to run for county executive in 2006, the governor said yesterday.

Ehrlich said he did not initiate the meeting with Bartenfelder, a Democrat who was a seatmate of the governor's when both were in the House of Delegates more than a decade ago. But Ehrlich said the councilman's conservative views would make him a good fit in the GOP and that a Republican challenger to Executive James T. Smith Jr. would be able to take advantage of the governor's organization and donor base.

"He's been quietly supportive of me and my races. Philosophically, he's a conservative Democrat," Ehrlich said. "We have a lot of mutual interests. He's a good guy."

Bartenfelder said yesterday that he met with the governor and discussed issues of importance to Baltimore County, but he said he didn't bring up the county executive's race or the idea of switching parties.

"I haven't been talking to anybody" about the county executive's race, Bartenfelder said. "I brought up things that affected Baltimore County, and that's all. We need a school. They're building a cancer center back here, and that's it."

Smith spokesman Damian O'Doherty said the executive would not comment on the issue.

Bartenfelder has been no ally of Smith's and has hinted that he is considering a run. Last month, he explained his bill to limit development near crowded schools as an attempt to look at issues from a countywide perspective. He also said he was "not yet" in a position to decide where school funding goes -- a role that is reserved for the executive.

Two years ago, he pondered a run to succeed departing executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger -- even joking at one point that he was measuring the drapes in the executive's office. But instead, he chose to run unopposed for a third term on the council.

County Republican leaders said they had not heard that Bartenfelder might join their ranks and run for executive. But they said they liked the idea.

"I think Joe Bartenfelder would make a wonderful Republican," said county GOP Chairman Chris Cavey. "I think he's really a Republican -- a Republican in Democrat's clothing."

Douglas B. Riley, Smith's Republican opponent in 2002, said yesterday that he will not run again. He also said that county Republicans have approached Bartenfelder about switching parties over the years.

"I think we'd welcome him with open arms," Riley said. "The right Republican with enough money can beat Jim Smith."

Ehrlich said the meeting with Bartenfelder took place a month ago and was one of many the councilman held to explore a run for county executive.

The governor said he told Bartenfelder that with his conservative record, he might be more comfortable in the Republican Party.

"It just has to be an option for him, because of his views," Ehrlich said.

Baltimore County is a crucial part of Ehrlich's base -- 98 percent of his margin of victory in the 2002 election came from voters there.

Like many Democrats running in the county then, Smith avoided identifying himself closely with Ehrlich's Democratic opponent, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and Smith has generally avoided publicly criticizing Ehrlich since taking office.

The one notable exception is in the treatment of Tropical Storm Isabel victims. Smith criticized Ehrlich, as well as federal officials, for raising victims' expectations after the storm and not following through sufficiently. The executive has also taken on the governor's appointee to the post of insurance commissioner, Alfred W. Redmer Jr., for not doing enough to help Isabel victims.

Ehrlich did not criticize Smith yesterday but said he will support the Republican nominee.

With more than two years before the election, another Democrat, former Recreation and Parks Director John F. Weber III, confirmed yesterday that he, too, is considering a challenge to the executive. Smith fired Weber on his first day in office.

"I just feel like I might be able to offer a leadership style that would be very positive for the county," said Weber, who would run as a Democrat.

Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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