The Maryland Republican Party faces its latest rebuilding effort after its chairman announced this week he is stepping down amid the organization's struggles to pay its bills and maintain relevance in an overwhelmingly Democratic state.
Chairman James Pelura's announcement came about a year before the 2010 primary elections, when the GOP will select candidates to run against Democratic incumbents such as Gov. Martin O'Malley and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.
Pelura will stay on through the party's convention Nov. 14.
Pelura had repeatedly told executive board members that he did not plan to step down, even after receiving a vote of no confidence in July, so his resignation Monday night was "a little surprising," said Chris Cavey of Baltimore County, the party's first vice chairman.
But the party has been rocked by infighting and financial problems. Last week, the State Board of Elections reached an agreement with the party under which it can repay $75,000 owed to former Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's campaign account over time so that it can still meet monthly expenses.
State lawmakers have clashed with Pelura, saying he fell short on party-building activities such as fundraising and voter registration and that he hurt party morale by criticizing Republican lawmakers.
In an interview Tuesday, Pelura stressed that he resigned "for personal and professional reasons," including the need to attend to his growing veterinarian practice in Anne Arundel County. He also said he wanted a new chairman to have time to become acclimated before the legislative session begins in January and the 2010 campaign season gets into full swing.
"The strife has been there from Day 1, so if that was the problem, I would have left a long time ago," Pelura said. "I still have people ask me, 'Why on earth do you put up with this?' Well, the Maryland Republican Party is worth saving. Marylanders require and demand and are owed a clear philosophical position from the party. I have tried to do that, and I think have done that."
Pelura, who met with recently with Steele, now national GOP chairman, said "nobody pushed me out." Before departing, Pelura said he will release a new voter registration plan and hold a fundraiser with former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Cavey will facilitate the transition, and a nominating committee has begun its work. Some potential successors whose names have been floated by party insiders include Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a two-time GOP gubernatorial candidate; John White, an Annapolis marketing executive who lost in a party vote to Pelura in 2006; and Al Redmer, former insurance commissioner under Ehrlich.
It's unclear what role Ehrlich might play. Henry Fawell, a spokesman, said the former governor "has been talking and listening. That's been his primary focus for the last 24 hours." If Ehrlich backs a successor, those discussions would remain private, Fawell added.
House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell said the state GOP is "obviously in a period of transition." He said he's confident a new chairman will help Republicans "come together in a unified fashion to move forward."