Plea, tears, ouster

Arundel GOP leader's exit comes amid theories, infighting

September 07, 2007|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

When 75 people attend an Anne Arundel County Republican Central Committee meeting, something is up.

This week's gathering, which had to be moved to a larger venue to accommodate the expected crowd, promised political theater and did not disappoint.

The result was just as promised: By a vote of 10-2, chairman Mike Collins was ousted.

But before that, there was (failed) maneuvering to quash public comment, followed by a (failed) effort to limit it. Then came the impassioned speeches, telling central committee members that the future of the county and state Republican party hinged on the decision they were about to make.

Bloggers - who in the past month have made the party's infighting a public spectacle - got out from behind their computers to witness the drama. There was a rumor the former governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., might show. Tears were shed.

"Don't destroy the party, that's all I ask," pleaded an emotional Chuck Gast, a state GOP vice chairman.

There were whispers that the super-conservative and moderate arms of the party were wrestling over control. Some chalked it up to a battle over whether to endorse a candidate in a congressional primary race. This week, another theory came out of left field: that this was somehow all about getting former Maryland first lady Kendel Ehrlich into the state Senate.

After hours of public discussion, committee member Alan Rzepkowski laid out a long list of small grievances: Initiatives had been shelved in the lead-up to the annual Lincoln Day dinner, that subcommittee weren't formed quickly enough, that the chairman didn't step in as an arbitrator in a debate over a political appointment, among other things.

Rzepkowski acknowledged that these were "things that individually don't make a big deal and individually are less important to certain members than others," he said. "But nonetheless, most members on this committee have had problems, and some of them were addressed and some were not. And here we stand now."

For most of those who spoke in Collins' defense, including Collins, it was the way the group removed its chairman that was troubling. They accused the group of making a snap judgment, trying to keep the effort secret and refusing to reconsider.

"I fully expected us to be fighting like cats and dogs ... I didn't expect everything to be peaches and cream and then be told one day that they wanted me out," Collins said.

But he also said that he wasn't really interested in being chairman anyway, and had been prepared to defer to the vice chairman, Jerry Walker.

Those leading the charge said they had a strong consensus and didn't want to smear Collins' name through a public trial.

The county GOP is in a distinct position in Maryland, with the local Democratic voters' majority narrowing while Republicans hold the county executive's office and a majority of county council seats. In contrast, the state party is broke and lost the governor's mansion last fall.

The central committee is a group of elected activists whose work typically involves organizing events, fundraising and identifying candidates. Anne Arundel's committee experienced a shake-up in last fall's election, with eight of 13 positions changing hands.

Collins, who ran for the House of Delegates and is serving his second term on the central committee, ran unopposed for a two-year term as chairman.

Nora Keenan, a former central committee member, said she doesn't like Collins. But she told members that she had his back.

"Mike should not be chairman. However, he is chairman. Tell me as a citizen, as a person who voted you into office, what he's done wrong," she said.

Dr. Ron Elfenbein, who ran for the House of Delegates last fall, said the group's approach "sends the wrong message, that we are the party of the smoke-filled room."

Blogger Brian Griffiths, who has filmed viral videos of himself scolding the central committee and posted leaked e-mails on his Web site, said he had "never been so ashamed to be a Republican as I am in this room tonight."

As the vote approached, central committee member Tom Redmond sighed.

"This thing has sort of just taken a life of its own," he said.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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