GOP voters bristle at Merdon's behavior

Spat is over testy dialogue at event and later e-mails

Maryland Votes 2006

May 26, 2006|By LARRY CARSON | LARRY CARSON,SUN REPORTER

A spat over a seat at a charity buffet may seem a minor thing - except when the primary protagonist is the Republican candidate for Howard County executive and the angered party is a Republican with friends in the candidate's political backyard.

The e-mail fueled fuss that was labeled a "misunderstanding" by Christopher J. Merdon, chairman of the Howard County Council. He called it "an unfortunate situation that was taken too far" and said he had apologized. He refused to discuss it further.

But several members of the exclusive Cattail Creek Country Club in western Howard are furious at Merdon, as much for his e-mails the day after the incident as for anything else.

"I think he thinks he's a little bit above us, which is not a good way to be if he wants our votes," said Susie Lanuza, a fellow Republican who was involved in a testy e-mail exchange with Merdon. "He's supposed to be one of us."

Merdon was a guest at the 11th Albright Foundation golf tournament and silent/live auction at the country club in heavily Republican western Howard on May 8. With more than 300 participants through the day and just 165 seats at tables, "there are no reserved seats," said Stephanie Albright, whose family foundation has given $1.3 million to groups that help needy children.

Lanuza said she, her husband and eight others were sitting at a table when Merdon approached and accused her husband of taking his reserved seat, rejected their entreaties and then angrily walked away.

"He came over and tapped my husband on the shoulder and said, `This is my table and my seat.' We said, We're so sorry; we'll eat really quick.' We didn't notice the napkins on the backs of the chairs," Lanuza said.

"He huffed away, mad," she said. "It just left a really bad feeling."

Things got worse the next day when Lanuza received an e-mail invitation to Merdon's free campaign picnic May 13. She took the opportunity to e-mail the general campaign address to complain about her interaction with him at the charity event.

"His high-horseness was really uncalled for and not taken very well. Just thought someone should know. Oh, and no, we won't be at the picnic," she wrote.

The following day, she got a reply from Merdon.

"It is common courtesy to have a seat reserved when there is a napkin on the chair - as was done throughout the room. That courtesy was not extended to me. It says more about the people who sat in those seats then it does about me."

"I am glad you won't be at the picnic. I want my guests to enjoy themselves and not have to interact with rude people who do not recognize common courtesy," the candidate wrote.

Lanuza was outraged, she said, and forwarded the message to friends, who have now forwarded it to dozens more GOP voters in western Howard.

"Nobody should act that way, let alone a politician," Lanuza said.

Merdon later sent another e-mail apologizing, both for his message and the entire incident.

"I was stressed out yesterday due to exhaustion of being on the campaign trail and working through the county budget," he said. "When I saw your e-mail, I reacted the wrong way."

He added that the original spat would have "been handled better by just walking away without saying anything. I hope you accept my apology."

Lanuza wasn't impressed.

"The apology once again was all about him. You know what? I have three children, a husband with a new business and a business of my own, and I'm tired, too, but I don't treat people that way," she said.

Lanuza's friend Kimberly Hildebrand was so upset by Merdon's original message that she shared her outrage with "50 friends," she said, although she wasn't at the event. Both women say they won't vote for Merdon.

Joan Becker, a western county Republican and Merdon supporter who knows several Cattail members, said the whole incident "got out of control."

It's "unfortunate. Very unfortunate," she said - though the lesson for candidates is clear.

"When you're in the public eye, you've got to watch your P's and Q's."

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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