Howard County Republicans are entering this unusually active election year with a new leader, after outspoken party Chairman Howard M. Rensin declined to seek a new term.
Rensin said his commercial investment business is booming, taking too much time for him to continue running the party in a year when lively contests are brewing on every level of government.
But the change in party leadership also comes shortly after Rensin delivered harsh, partisan remarks about Democrats' ability to retain the allegiance of African-American voters, remarks that some Republicans privately complained were too inflammatory.
Brian Harlin, formerly vice chairman of the party central committee, is the county GOP's new leader. He said the post fits well with what he does for a living.
"Handling campaigns and winning elections is what I do," said Harlin, who owns an Elkridge printing business that specializes in Republican campaign signs and materials. As for Rensin's departure, Harlin said, "I don't see that anyone had a huge problem with Howard."
The party central committee voted Harlin to the chairmanship Saturday at the Glenwood library, after a broader party meeting.
County Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a western county Republican, had no criticism of Rensin yesterday, but he said Harlin "is soft-spoken and knows how to bring everyone together."
Other Republicans also praised Rensin, who will remain a member of the elected nine-member state central committee.
Rensin said his business, North American Investments, requires more of his attention.
"My business has grown so substantially in the last year and a half it has really created time constraints for me," he said yesterday.
"I have been [party] chairman for a year and a half, and I have enjoyed it."
County Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican running for county executive, has stressed keeping partisan politics to a minimum this year, though he had only praise for Rensin yesterday.
Rensin said he could have remained chairman if he had wanted to.
"I was told that if I wanted to run for re-election, I would have no opponent," he said, adding that "the job of the party chairman is to rally the base and turn out the base."
In a county with 80,000 registered Democrats and 60,000 registered Republicans, Rensin's rhetoric has been, at times, especially pointed.
Last month, after a vote from a County Council Democrat led to Merdon's selection as council chairman, Rensin said there were larger forces at work.
Rensin noted support from east Columbia Democrat David A. Rakes, an African-American, as a sign that Republicans are making inroads among black voters, which, he said, could help Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele win a U.S. Senate seat.
"This is yet another example of how thinking voters who are African-American are seeing that the Democrats have lied to them over all these years and do not deserve their continued support," Rensin said in an e-mail.
"If the Democrats lose the African-American vote, which is clearly in the wind, they are rapidly heading to the ashcan of history," he concluded.
Tony McGuffin, vice chair of the county's Democrats, said he welcomes Harlin as GOP chairman.
"We know Brian Harlin," he said, referring to Harlin's run for County Council in 2002 against Rakes. "Hopefully, there will be more positive rhetoric. On the local level, we don't need to act like [they do] on Capitol Hill."
Howard County Republicans, he said, "are our friends and neighbors."