GOP in Md. Senate is divided

Pipkin launches a bid to topple Stoltzfus as the minority leader


With an election a year away, a fissure is dividing Republicans in the Maryland Senate - imperiling party unity at a time when the GOP hopes to capitalize on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s popularity to make gains in the General Assembly.

Sen. E.J. Pipkin, a first-term Eastern Shore Republican who ran for the U.S. Senate last year, has launched a bid to topple Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus as minority leader. Pipkin has lined up at least six of the eight votes needed to claim the leadership position, senators say. A caucus vote is scheduled for Tuesday.

In an interview yesterday, Pipkin said the caucus could benefit from fresh leadership as it attempts to pick up seats in five districts it has targeted in Anne Arundel County, Baltimore County and Southern Maryland.

If it gained those seats in the 47-member chamber, Republicans would have enough votes to sustain a filibuster and thus play a larger role in blocking legislation supported by Democrats.

"I certainly have name recognition, the ability to help people in those districts, and the time to do it," said Pipkin, a former Wall Street bond trader who is now a full-time senator. Stoltzfus runs his 500-acre farm on the Shore.

Additionally, Sen. David R. Brinkley of Frederick County is challenging Sen. Andrew P. Harris of Baltimore County for the GOP whip position, or second in command. The 14-member caucus appears to be evenly divided, 7 to 7, on the whip position. Neither Brinkley nor Harris returned telephone calls yesterday.

The leadership fight divides a group of senators that believes the caucus should strictly adhere to Ehrlich's agenda even when the legislators don't like it - such as when the governor proposes increases in fees - and another group that wants to be more independent.

"I think the governor benefits from having senators who are willing to disagree with him at times and give him opinions he may not have heard," said Sen. Alex X. Mooney, a conservative Republican from Frederick County who is supporting challenger Pipkin and whip incumbent Harris - the two leaders who represent the more independent faction. "I think the governor understands that some of us are elected in areas with constituents that are more willing to let us have fights."

But Mooney is disturbed by the timing of the struggle.

"This is a really bad time for Republicans to be infighting like this," he said. "It's an election year, and we should be working together."

Stoltzfus, who has been minority leader for five years and was whip for three years before that, survived a challenge last session. Several senators supported Harris, out of concern that Stoltzfus was not standing firmly enough against the Democratic majority. Stoltzfus is considering not running for re-election in 2006.

Stoltzfus, who has become the face of the GOP in opposition to a probe of the governor's personnel practices, said he would not talk in detail about the intracaucus fight, but he said he was not overly concerned about it.

"I'm not offended by a challenge. Let's vote," he said, adding that he thinks Pipkin wants the position not because of an ideological divide, but because he wants to move ahead in his career. "Anybody who is in this is ambitious," Stoltzfus said. "I understand that."

The toppling of party leaders is often discussed but relatively rare in Annapolis. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, the ranking Democrat, has led the chamber since January 1987 and is one of the longest-serving presiding officers in the nation.

During the past three years, the Ehrlich administration has worked to maintain party unity in the House and Senate. He and his aides have made sure the vast majority of Republicans have voted his way on slots, vehicle registration fee increases, the so-called "flush tax" to pay for sewage treatment plant improvements, and medical malpractice legislation.

In several instances, many GOP members have indicated they would have preferred to vote differently. Before Ehrlich's election in 2002, for example, legislative Republicans were largely opposed to slots.

Josh White, political director for the Maryland Democratic Party, said GOP unity was created "with bubble gum and Band-aids, and held together by fear, not by ideas."

White said he thinks Ehrlich has alienated some conservatives, who are now joining in the defection against the current Senate leader. "The delegates and the senators and all the candidates below them have woken up to the fact that he just doesn't care about their races," White said.

Ehrlich is not getting involved in the leadership struggle, said a spokesman, Henry Fawell.

"The Senate caucus makes its own leadership choices without interference from the governor's office," Fawell said.

Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party, said the leadership fight would not damage the party's prospects.

"Any one of those distinguished senators would be more than qualified to be in a leadership position," she said.

Sun reporter Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.

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