Gop Tea-leaf Readers See A Party Resurgence

political notebook

April 26, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

Howard County Republicans are fired up, believing that those feisty tax-day tea parties promoted across the nation by conservatives and Fox News could lead to a political comeback locally and in Maryland.

Protesters from the county gathered at rainy Meadowbrook Park in Ellicott City on April 15 and formed a caravan to the big Annapolis rally.

The nationwide events boosted political interest and activity in the GOP, leading to a late surge in attendance at the local party's annual Lincoln Day dinner, featuring former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his wife, Kendel, as speakers.

County party Chairwoman Joan Becker said the crowd of about 300 at Turf Valley on April 17 forced her to squeeze in a couple of extra tables at the last minute.

"After April 15, people were ready to come out in numbers," she said.

Republicans hope the lively crowd could signal a resurgence of activity and interest as the 2010 state, local and congressional elections approach.

The goal, Becker said, is "to take our country back, but let's start by taking our county back."

In 2006, Democrats led by Ken Ulman retained the county executive's post and expanded the majority on the County Council from three to four of the five members. Among the 11 state legislators representing the county, Democrat James N. Robey replaced Republican Sandra B. Schrader, giving Democrats two of the three state Senate seats and six of the county's eight seats in the House of Delegates.

But Ehrlich and many county Republicans attribute those losses to national politics and disenchantment with former President George W. Bush's war in Iraq and rising deficit spending.

Becker said that "the first step to progress is discontent" and that the "liberal socialist-type government" of President Barack Obama is providing that.

"Never did I dream in three months we'd be where we are today. It's frightening," she said about the increased level of national debt from Obama's stimulus package.

For the Ehrlichs, the tea party's energy jolt could lead to another run against Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley. But the former governor said places such as Howard County are crucial barometers for a decision he'll make later.

"How Howard County goes, so goes the state," Ehrlich said after a prolonged standing ovation.

He noted that he won the county in 2002 when he was elected governor, and lost it in 2006 when O'Malley beat him.

Ehrlich then enumerated a dozen points that he said distinguish Republicans, starting with recognizing the threat posed by "Islamic fundamentalism" and moving through familiar GOP themes such as low taxes, less spending, school vouchers, gun rights, free markets, marriage only between a man and a woman, conservation and legal reform.

Kendel Ehrlich introduced her husband with some lively rhetoric of her own.

"I don't know about you, but April 15, 2009, was very significant for 2010," she said. "We can protest too."

Next year is shaping up to be a big protest year politically, she said, much like 1994, when Bob Ehrlich first won election to Congress and Republicans took control of both chambers.

"He's in public life because he cares, not as an aside to his band life," she said, a pointed reference to O'Malley's Celtic rock band.

Several of Ehrlich's former Cabinet officials from Howard were in the crowd, including his transportation secretary, Robert L. Flanagan; and human resources secretary, Christopher J. McCabe. Schrader and her husband, Dennis, also attended. Dennis Schrader was Maryland's homeland security director before taking a similar federal post that ended with Obama's inauguration. Former Critical Areas Commission Chairman Martin G. Madden, former General Services Secretary Boyd K. Rutherford and Trent Kittleman, who headed the Maryland Transportation Authority for two years, were there, as was former County Council member Chris Merdon, the party's nominee for county executive in 2006. No potential opponent for Ulman surfaced at the dinner.

Kendel Ehrlich said she is often asked whether her husband will try for governor again, adding that it is a daunting prospect. "It's a lot to go through. It's fun doing the fight," she said, but dealing with the news media and the General Assembly is difficult.

"It can't be done without a monumental grass-roots effort. The burden is with you. It is. This is all about you," she told the crowd. "You need to tell Bob Ehrlich what you want him to do."

One person with a definite message for Republicans is the county's Democratic Party chairman, Michael C.A. McPherson.

"I don't see this resurgence of the Republican Party in the county," McPherson said, as he prepares for the county party's annual Democratic Jefferson-Jackson dinner May 19, featuring U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin.

McPherson noted there was no tea party event in Howard County.

"If you're on a roll, you maximize that by having an event here in the county," he said, adding that he thinks Democrats have grown stronger in Howard in recent years.

"The Democratic Party in Howard County is strong, viable, and we're looking forward to 2010," he said.

Ethics charge spiked

Jud Malone's ethics complaint against Del. Elizabeth Bobo for using her state computer to send e-mails supporting Columbia Association board member Phil Kirsch's re-election candidacy in Wilde Lake in 2007 and 2008 was dismissed by the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Ethics.

The committee concluded that e-mails about a private homeowners association election did not qualify as partisan activity, which is prohibited for those using state computers. Bobo said she expected that result but has "narrowed the use of my computer way, way down" to prevent further disputes.

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