In Harford, Democrats' loyalty on dotted line

Candidates pledge to repay funds if they switch parties

October 14, 2005|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

Things have gone so badly for Harford County Democrats in recent years that some of their candidates have jumped to the GOP soon after being elected.

So the New Harford Democratic Club has added a requirement for candidates seeking its endorsement: a pledge to remain Democratic, or to repay money spent by the club or its members on their behalf if they switch parties.

"If you're a Democrat, you're a Democrat, and if we help you get elected, you're not gonna pull some game and switch things up," said John F. Haggerty, the club's president.

The perceived need for such measures illustrates the continuing demographic changes in booming Harford County, where Republicans have surged to virtual parity after a long period of Democratic dominance - a period in which the aisle-jumping had more often gone the other way.

Twenty years ago, Democrats outnumbered Republicans 49,103 to 21,236 in Harford. As of May, the margin had nearly evaporated: 61,855 to 60,301.

With a nearly all-Republican slate of elected officials, some observers say, 2006 could be the year the GOP takes the lead.

But to make matters worse, Democratic leaders say, there have been numerous instances in recent years of party jumping by officials hoping to bolster their re-election prospects or seeking political appointments, which some leaders on both sides say reeks of political opportunism.

Haggerty, whose club has more than 550 dues-paying members, recalls stuffing envelopes and making calls in support of Havre de Grace Mayor John P. Correri Jr., who has run for the House of Delegates and the County Council as a Democrat. Reached at his home, Correri said he is now a registered Republican. Though he declined to elaborate on why he switched, he hinted at plans to run for higher office.

In Bel Air, two town commissioners came before the club seeking - and eventually getting - support in 2002, but are now registered Republicans.

One of them is James V. McMahan Jr., a 67-year-old retired Army veteran and local talk show host known as "Captain Jim." He is rumored by political insiders to be considering a run for a seat on the County Council, a seven-member body that has just one Democrat.

But McMahan says his switch was nothing more than a change in philosophy.

"It was a personal preference," he said, declining to specify any issues. "I think you have to follow your conscience."

William G. Christoforo, chairman of the county Republican Central Committee, said, "It's gotta be discouraging for the Democrats."

"I'd certainly be demoralized if I'm a Democratic activist. You support a candidate financially and with manpower, and then they switch," he said.

With the GOP experiencing new momentum and targeting growth areas since the 2002 election of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the first Republican governor in almost 40 years, party leaders have seen more opponents coming to their side.

"I think you'll hear cries and squawking from Democratic party officials over numerous changes in party affiliation lately, and that can be attributed to one thing - the Democratic party in Maryland is out of touch with the values, beliefs and economic principles of people in the state," said Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the state Republican Party.

This year, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele attended a news conference for Annapolis Alderman George O. Kelley Sr., a longtime Democrat who announced he was switching parties. Steele said Kelley, who is black, illustrated the GOP's growing diversity. Francis X. Kelly Jr., a former state senator from Baltimore County who was named by Ehrlich to the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents, also changed sides shortly before his appointment.

Changes in affiliation tend to depend on which way the political pendulum is swinging in the state. Retired Adm. Charles R. Larson, a lifelong Republican, changed parties when he decided to run on Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's failed Democratic ticket for governor in 2002. In 1998, two Republican state senators - Patrick J. Hogan and Robert R. Neall - switched parties between elections; Neall was defeated. And the Anne Arundel County Council features three members who changed affiliation in the 1990s, including two who went from Republican to Democrat.

Switching parties for ideological reasons is more common at the national level, where stances on divisive issues such as guns, gay marriage or abortion can leave officials feeling that their party has left them behind, said Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

But it's much less likely on the local level, where party affiliation rarely plays into issues of budget management and ordinances, he said. Those who do switch are likely looking to benefit from the larger party's momentum and fundraising.

"You've got to wonder if they believe in public policy or their own election," Schaller said. "It's a pretty risky strategy."

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