Club's membership `not my business,' governor says

July 06, 2005|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. addressed criticism yesterday of a fund-raiser he hosted at an all-white country club by saying its membership is "not my business," and he complained of a "double standard" because there was no outcry when prominent Democrats held events there.

Speaking on WBAL-AM yesterday morning, Ehrlich, a Republican, said the decision to hold an event at the Elkridge Club on June 20 was made by his campaign staff, not by him. Members of the club told The Sun last week that it has never had a black member in its 127-year history.

A campaign spokeswoman for a leading Democratic politician, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., confirmed yesterday that a supporter hosted a fund-raiser for him at Elkridge on May 4.

"Jim Smith has never belonged to a country club in his life. He was not aware of the country club's membership composition, and as the leader of a diverse county, he appreciates that it has been brought to his attention. Clearly he will not have future campaign events hosted at this location," said Rachael Rice, a fund-raising consultant for the Smith campaign.

She said she did not know details of the event for Smith, who faces an election next year.

Ehrlich, who said that he has spoken at the Elkridge Club "many, many times over the years sponsored by different groups," said he was not concerned about who belonged to the club.

"I don't know what their membership is, and guess what? It's not my business," Ehrlich said in the radio interview. "It's a private club, which we rented. I had no idea, and I guess neither did any of the prominent Democrats who held fund-raisers there in the past."

Ehrlich raised $100,000 at a $1,000-a-head golf fund-raiser at the club.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who is African-American, said he hadn't talked to the governor about the event and wasn't concerned by it.

"I don't know that much about the club, the membership, nor do I care, quite frankly, because I don't play golf. It's not an issue with me," Steele told the Associated Press yesterday.

Ehrlich said the outcry from African-American leaders over the event is evidence of a double standard because they had not similarly criticized "a number of prominent Democrats" who have held fund-raisers there.

The governor said on the radio that he saw no need to identify the Democrats. Later, an Ehrlich spokesman said the governor had been told that a pair of Democrats, one currently in office, had held events at the Elkridge Club. The spokesman, Henry Fawell, said he had been instructed not to release the names.

"We're not trying to embarrass them," Ehrlich said. "It was a non-event for them as it was a non-event for us."

Del. Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat who is African-American and works for Smith as head of the county's Office of Fair Practices, said it is important for any politician to stand against an organization with such a long history of exclusion.

"[Ehrlich] does know now [that the club is all white] and he's saying it's not a big deal. That's a slap," Jones said. "In light of the position he holds as governor of the Free State of Maryland with its diverse constituency, he needs to repudiate this. If Democrats have had events there, they should, too."

Several members of the club said it has no written rule prohibiting African-Americans and other minorities from joining. They said minorities have dined and played golf there as guests, and that memberships are offered based on social and family connections.

Ehrlich's and Smith's events were held too recently to show up in the state Board of Elections' campaign finance database, which shows no records of any events at the club. The database contains information only since 1999.

Maryland campaign finance laws make no distinction between cash donations and contributions of goods or services to campaigns. If the club had donated the use of the golf course, it likely would have exceeded Maryland campaign contribution limits.

State records would also show campaign expenditures at the club. At the time of the fund-raiser, Ehrlich's campaign chairman said the campaign paid between $75 and $100 per person for the use of the club and for food and drinks for the donors.

Ehrlich's office pointed out yesterday that The Sun has also had some association with Elkridge over the years.

Former publisher Reginald Murphy said he joined the club when he moved to Baltimore in 1981. He said he was unaware of its membership composition.

He said he dropped his membership after helping establish the Caves Valley Golf Club, which he said was founded to be inclusive regardless of religion, race or gender. Murphy added that he sponsored the first African-American member of the Baltimore Country Club.

"My record is clear, both at the Baltimore Country Club and at Caves," Murphy said.

Since Murphy's departure, The Sun has seen four publishers and two changes of corporate ownership.

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