Democrats in Howard County are riding high these days, flush with local and statewide election victories last fall, as they prepare for the party's annual fundraising dinner Thursday night-- featuring Gov. Martin O'Malley as the main speaker.
But party leaders are not coasting.
Instead of publicly patting his party faithful on the back, Chairman Michael C.A. McPherson has posted an aggressive-sounding plan for boosting Democratic strength on the group's official Web site. Republicans, by comparison, advertise similar ideas, but in the form of a brief list. Republicans hold their annual party dinner May 20.
"We have to get back to building reasons for people to define themselves as Democrats. Why does this matter, as long as Democrats are winning elections? It matters because party identification is the most reliable predictor of whether someone will vote for a certain candidate in any given election," McPherson wrote.
He wants to start a "neighborhood contact program" with volunteers who would be "soldiers in the trenches" and operate on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood level. He is also pushing into traditional GOP territory, partly by strengthening the Western Howard County Democratic Club, which has reserved four tables at the party dinner, he said.
"I'm not resting on my laurels," McPherson said, adding that he hopes to recruit retiring baby boomers for grass-roots work in the 2008 national election and the 2010 local and statewide campaigns.
Democrats did pretty well last year at all levels.
In Washington, they took control of Congress. In Howard, they won the county executive's job along with four of the five County Council seats, and they took a 2-1 majority of the three-member state Senate delegation. Democrats also kept their 6-2 majority among House of Delegates members.
By comparison, Republicans lost not only elections but some leaders who are now moving on to other pursuits. Still, party Chairwoman Loretta Shields said her group is working hard to regroup.
"We're doing grass roots, though we don't have it on our Web site," Shields said. The GOP Web site features an eight-point list of goals, from fundraising to registration and grassroots organizing, but it lacks the detail and the aggressive tone of the Democrats.
The Republicans' dinner is Sunday night, with journalist Blair Lee IV the speaker.
Republicans with a significantly lower political profile include former state Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, who lost her seat to Democrat James N. Robey. Schrader is a lobbyist with the all-female Artemis Group in Annapolis. Artemis' principals include former state Sen. Barbara Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat, and the group counts the American Civil Liberties Union and the Service Employees International Union as clients. Neither is high on the list of Republican favorites.
"I'm involved [in politics] in a much lower capacity. We've gone through some changes and reassessing over the last five or six months," Schrader said, noting that her life has returned to something closer to normal.
"I've started doing yard work. I'm not worrying about knocking on doors and raising money. Things happen, and life goes on."
Schrader's husband, Dennis R. Schrader, Maryland's former Homeland Security director and before that a Howard County councilman, is awaiting U.S. Senate confirmation for a federal nonpolitical job -- as deputy administrator for national preparedness at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Meanwhile former County Council chairman and GOP standard bearer Christopher J. Merdon has seemingly dropped out of local political life since losing his bid to be county executive to Democrat Ken Ulman.
Since his election loss, Merdon has been dogged by questions raised in The Sun about campaign contributions from firms connected with an effort to win a minority-firm share of a $100 million state computer services contract. Merdon is a vice president of ACS State and Local Solutions Inc. of Dallas, which won the state contract during last year's election campaign.
The short-lived minority firm's principals were prominent Republican women, including local GOP consultant and strategist Carol Hirschburg. The deal never went through, but Hirschburg, her firm and related firms donated about $18,000 to the Merdon campaign, although $1,800 of it was returned to contributors, according to state campaign reports.
Merdon did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Republican Del. Gail H. Bates, one of three GOP state legislators among Howard's 11-member contingent, said the party is intent on recovering lost ground.
"We've got people coming up through the ranks in clubs," she said, mentioning Tom D'Asto and Gina Ellrich, who both ran for County Council last year, as potential future leaders.
As a party, "it takes you a little while to get your feet back on the ground," she said. "There are three more years before we're actually into the next [state and local] campaign."
Local Democrats praise McPherson's action plan.
"I think today you have to attack on two fronts -- the grass-roots level and the high-tech effort," said Del. Frank S. Turner.
Guy Guzzone, a former two-term county councilman who won a House of Delegates term last year, said he, too, endorses McPherson's approach.
"I think complacency in the past, on the part of any party ... leads to failure. I think we learned that lesson. We don't ever want to go to that place again," Guzzone said.