Restoring balance to the bay and to the GOP

August 06, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

When they decided to roll out their campaign for seats on Talbot County's Republican central state committee, Preston Padden, Bob Amdur, Tom Moore and Bob Welte called themselves Rockfish Republicans and asked two seafood stores if they could pose with a Chesapeake Bay rockfish for a promotional photograph.

The stores wanted to help but could not oblige.

"Both stores," says Padden, "told us that rockfish look so diseased that they have stopped carrying them."

What we have here are four longtime Republicans disturbed about the future of the Chesapeake and all the dumb land development on the Eastern Shore. They are fiscal conservatives and social moderates increasingly unhappy with local and state GOP leadership on the environmental front, so they're starting a campaign to inject some green-think where there seems to be no-think.

Nationally, their fellow Republicans - and a lot of conservative Democrats who hold local office across the country and in Maryland - are almost always on the side of property owners' rights, the ambitions of developers and local autonomy, even as population and economic growth threaten to change the scenery of rural America and diminish the quality of life there.

Development is a sleeper issue in Maryland, and it could affect several local elections. In fact, it already has.

In June, voters concerned about growth in the tiny town of Crisfield ousted their longtime mayor and two City Council members, electing a slate that promised to scrap a controversial deal that put a private firm in charge of redevelopment projects.

In Queen Anne's County, an environmental activist named Jay Falstad recently formed a political action committee called the Republican Environmental Alliance. "There has been a growing group of registered Republicans, locally, regionally and nationally, who believe in the pillars of the Republican Party, but who also care strongly for environmental protection," Falstad told The Star Democrat in Easton. "Unfortunately, many of these people have felt either left out or disenfranchised by the party."

In Harford County, there's a serious citizens' uprising over growth issues in Aberdeen, and Democrat Ann Helton is running for county executive with a pledge to "reduce developer influence in our government, stop sprawl, end school overcrowding, end highway gridlock and promote managed growth." Among her backers is a group called Republicans for Ann Helton. The group thinks Helton represents the average Harford voter: a moderate Republican, fiscal conservative and land conservationist.

The Eastern Shore's biggest election-year controversy is the $1 billion, 2,700-home Blackwater resort development near Cambridge. The Republican governor of Maryland has pretty much taken a walk on the matter, deferring to local decision-makers. And the local decision-makers seem determined to bring 10,000 new residents - and their cars, trucks, water consumption and sewage - to a stretch of land near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

Throughout the Eastern Shore, local decision-making has set up an era of unprecedented growth; Shore population is expected to grow by nearly a third over the next 25 years.

It's the local decision-makers who, for starters, are the targets of the Rockfish Republicans. Rather than switch parties, they want to affect things at the primary level.

"Our party and many of our Republican elected officials have been on the wrong side of the overdevelopment issue," says Padden, an Oxford resident, senior executive with Walt Disney Co.'s government relations office in Washington and founder of Entertaining Republicans, a group that, he says, has raised thousands of dollars for congressional candidates.

"So I got together with three other guys and we formed the `Rockfish Republican' slate to take over the Talbot County Republican Party central committee. Our plan is to recruit strong Republican candidates that care more about the health of our rockfish than about the health of developers."

Padden is joined on the Rockfish slate by Amdur, a former staff member of the Republican National Committee who worked in network television; Moore, a member of the Easton Planning and Zoning Commission; and Welte, a retired corporate executive.

In addition to their quest for seats on the central committee, they're looking for more Republicans like Wayne Gilchrest, the incumbent congressman who represents the Eastern Shore and is a bona fide environmentalist.

"We're not anti-development," says Padden. "But right now there are too many officials who are more concerned about developers than the quality of the Chesapeake."

In addition to Blackwater, the Rockfish Republicans oppose proposed developments in Trappe, Miles Point and Easton. They sound like they embrace Smart Growth, a Democratic initiative but one that begs for bipartisan support as the nation and the state continue to grow.

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