Josh White, who took over daily operations of a dispirited Maryland Democratic Party after the Republican gubernatorial victory in 2002, is leaving the organization nine months before next year's primary.
A widely respected political professional, White, 38, was hired in 2003 as executive director, but lost the title after Terry Lierman replaced Isiah Leggett as party chairman last year.
Lierman wanted greater control over party functions, and White became political director while still handling most management functions such as budgeting and planning. He helped the party establish an online voter database that was recently completed.
White declined yesterday to give a reason for his departure but said he was leaving at the end of the year. Party offices in Annapolis are closed next week, meaning White's duties have effectively ended.
"I'm just looking forward to doing something else," he said, adding that he planned to stay in Maryland in another political or campaign position. "I am still going to be working to put Democrats in office and take back Maryland," White said.
Republicans questioned the timing of White's departure, saying a shake-up this close to competitive elections is unusual.
Maryland is entering perhaps its most vibrant election year in recent history, with heavily contested Democratic primaries for governor, Senate and the 3rd District congressional seat. After the primaries, Democrats are hoping for unity and focus as they seek to topple Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is expected to have a $20 million campaign account and no intraparty opposition.
"You want to have your team in place, and conventional wisdom thought they had their team in place," said Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the Republican Party of Maryland. "A switch-up this late in the game is surprising."
White leaves as Republicans and conservatives continue to seek the identity of MD4Bush, the anonymous Internet poster who created an online identity and began discussing rumors about Mayor Martin O'Malley's personal life with another message board visitor who was an aide to Ehrlich.
The aide, Joseph F. Steffen Jr., resigned, and apologized to O'Malley. But disclosure of Steffen's activities in several state agencies led to a legislative probe of whether Ehrlich was firing relatively low-level state workers for political reasons.
A conservative Web site, free republic.com, recently disclosed that one of the e-mail addresses used to operate MD4Bush was firstname.lastname@example.org, the same e-mail address as former party communications director Ryan O'Doherty, who used to work with White.
Democratic Party officials say they do not know who MD4Bush is and have questioned the authenticity of O'Doherty's e-mail address on freerepublic.com. They said White's departure is not tied to questions about the online poster.
"The party had nothing to do with MD4Bush. There is no way to know what every member of the party does," said Derek Walker, the former communications chief who is now acting executive director and in line for the permanent position. White's departure "would have happened anyway. The correlation is purely coincidental," Walker said.
"He had been here for quite a while, and this has been a high-burnout job," Walker said. "He really put new life into the party in 2003. These were really the dark days of the party, and he took control and managed it into a successful organization again."