If the keynote speakers at Howard County's two annual spring political dinners this year are any indication, local Democrats and Republicans are in very different places as they prepare for next year's presidential election.
Democrats gathering May 26 at Ten Oaks Ballroom in Clarksville expect to hear from Rep. Steny Hoyer, the ultimate conventional politician and insider. Republicans gathering June 3 at Turf Valley are to listen to Herman Cain, a presidential hopeful, former business executive and Atlanta radio talk-show host with a history of inflammatory statements similar to Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and other tea party-style conservatives
The two party dinners, which Republicans call their Lincoln Day dinner and Democrats call their Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, are designed to raise money for the local party central committees and represent a chance for the party faithful to rub elbows and boost their enthusiasm. Because Howard is not a huge county and Maryland doesn't typically decide presidential contests, local party leaders strive for speakers who will draw a crowd.
County Democratic Chairman Michael McPherson said he wanted to get someone different to speak this year, rather than depend on the members of Congress who directly represent people in Howard County. That's why he asked Hoyer, who is second-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives.
"What I was looking for with Steny was a snapshot of what's happening at the national level," McPherson said. "As a Marylander in the leadership, that's not something we ordinarily get here," he said.
Hoyer won his first elective office to join the Maryland Senate in 1966 at age 27, the same year he completed law school, and became Senate president in 1975. He moved to the House in 1981, representing Southern Maryland's 5th Congressional District.
Hoyer's official biography spends a page and a half describing him as "a leader for economic development and jobs," and highlights his efforts to protect the Chesapeake Bay, improve area transportation and pass the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990. It's a classic insider's litany of corralling federal dollars and political support for a wide range of popular causes.
Loretta Shields, the Republican Party leader in Howard, said, "We wanted a big-name speaker" this year. She would have loved to get New Jersey's blunt Republican Gov. Chris Christie, "but that's not going to happen," she said. "At a county level, you're not going to get a Michele Bachmann," the outspoken Minnesota Republican firebrand, "or a Mitt Romney," the former Massachusetts governor who is more moderate politically.
The Lincoln Day dinner's primary purpose is to raise money, she said.
"You want to have somebody who's interesting." Cain, with his outspoken, provocative statements, appears to fit that bill as the GOP searches for a way to defeat Democratic President Barack Obama.
Here's a Cain sampling from interviews posted on his campaign Web page:
"The objective of liberals is to destroy this country" by aiming for mediocrity, Cain said in a television interview. "We are a nation of tyranny." "The United States of America will not become the United States of Europe. Not on our watch!"
Cain, a former mathematician, Coca-Cola executive and CEO of Godfather's Pizza, is an African-American and potential challenger to Obama, the nation's first black chief executive. He talks about his religious faith, and has said he recovered completely from Stage 4 cancer of his colon and liver. He wants to repeal last year's health care reform law, which he has called "an absolute disaster," and argues that there is too much "legislation, regulation and taxation." He wants to throw out the entire U.S. tax code and start over. He also wants to lower the corporate tax rate, make the Bush tax cuts permanent and lower capital gains taxes.
McPherson called Cain a "rabble-rouser" who makes "the most outlandish charges."
"I think that's what the Republicans want to hear," he added.
"He's not playing to the moderates. He's playing to the fringe," McPherson said about Cain. Hoyer, on the other hand, is "somebody who's participating. He's in the fight. He can tell you what's going on."
Shields said, "Hoyer's been around a long time. I'm still amazed that he's there."
One difference in the two parties' outlooks, Shields said, is that Democrats "know who their presidential candidate is going to be," while Republicans want to hear from a range of people. Cain "is just exploring. It's a good thing to hear him. It's good to get the names out to people who don't know them."