Conservative Wright was a major player in Harford politics

Death of county executive candidate a shock to family and friends

May 23, 2010|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

He entered politics to promote smaller government and protect his fellow citizens' constitutional liberties, and in his native Harford County, Steve Wright's talent for inspiring the like-minded was legend.

He led rallies that put a brake on tax hikes, spoke at teeming tea party rallies and started two thriving conservative clubs. He was the first to file as a candidate for Harford County executive in the election this fall.

Friends who marveled at his energy said the 4-by-8-foot campaign signs he and a friend put together by hand last weekend were just the opening salvo in his mission to unseat the incumbent, fellow Republican David R. Craig.

Wright, 50, died after his SUV ran into a utility pole in Bel Air on Thursday evening, extinguishing a bright political career and leaving friends and supporters around the county and state in a state of shock.

"He was a fantastic father and husband, a very strong and outgoing person, and the best friend a best friend could have," Del. Rick Impallaria, a Republican who represents parts of Harford, said yesterday as he choked back tears. "I can't believe this happened. In his 50 years of life, he put in 100 years of time."

"We're all in disbelief," said the Rev. Horace Tittle, a friend and volunteer on Wright's campaign. "We're trying to fathom how this energetic, in-it-to-win-it, right-man-for-the-right-job-at-the-right-time candidate for county executive can possibly be gone."

A self-employed CPA who was also part owner of a small airport in Harford County, Stephen Michael Wright, a 1977 graduate of Harford Christian School and a graduate of Elon College in North Carolina, was on his way to speak at a Harford County Right to Life meeting in Abingdon when the 2003 Jeep Grand Cherokee he was driving slowed markedly, drifted off the right shoulder in a southbound lane of Wheel Road, and came to rest against a telephone pole, witnesses said.

According to police reports, Wright was not speeding. Impallaria and Del. Pat McDonogh, another friend, said officials who responded to the accident believed that Wright, who suffered from diabetes, died of a heart attack.

"Striking the pole was [apparently] incidental," McDonogh said.

Police had not confirmed a cause of death Friday.

Several colleagues who knew Wright said it was hard to pinpoint when he entered politics, perhaps because he often used his formidable energies behind the scenes.

"He was incredibly passionate about what he believed in, and he never seemed to get tired," said state Sen. Nancy Jacobs, who has known Wright and his family for three decades.

Wright was appointed to the Harford County Republican Central Committee in 2003 and won election to the body three years later. Committee chairwoman Kim Wagner said that in a party that embraces a wide range of views, Wright was a reliable and vocal supporter of conservative causes.

A devout Catholic, he was a strong abortion opponent and favored a nonintrusive government, lower taxes and a political climate favorable to the free market, McDonogh said.

Two years ago, he formed the Route 40 Republican Club, located in Edgewood, a mostly Democratic portion of the county. Meetings routinely drew more than 200 people, a rarity for such a new organization, including a fundraiser for former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. last November where "you couldn't even get into the room," Jacobs said. Six months ago, he and Impallaria started the North Harford Republican Club, which has also been drawing hundreds of people.

Wright believed that in an era of ballooning government, change was needed, said John Orlando, chairman of the libertarian-leaning Maryland Republican Liberty Caucus. He was a key organizer behind the Tea Party movement in Harford County, often bringing his pickup truck and offering the bed as a stage for speakers.

Last fall, when the Harford County Council was poised to raise the limit on yearly property-tax increases to 9 percent, Wright led a demonstration of about 300 people at the council chambers. "There were people driving around the building blowing their horns," Orlando said. "Their presence was huge."

The council voted to limit increases to 4 percent annually.

Most saw Wright's quest to defeat Craig, a popular incumbent, in the Republican primary this fall as unlikely to succeed, but McDonogh wasn't too sure.

"Incumbents are more vulnerable than normal, and there's a throw-the-bums out mentality in Harford County," he said. "I wouldn't have written him off."

A Churchville resident, Wright was devoted to his wife, Krista, and daughters Meagan, 24; McKenzie, 15; and Katie, 13, who regularly appeared at fundraisers and rallies.

Ehrlich called Wright a "proud husband and father who had a deep love for his country, his state and his party." Former Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said Wright was "one of Maryland's great leaders and my friend."

Tittle said final plans have been set for two visitations — one from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and another from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday at McComas Funeral Home in Abingdon — and for the funeral, which he said would be at 1 p.m. Wednesday at Saint Margaret Roman Catholic Church in Bel Air.

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