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Campaign Beat

Party Down

The GOP May Rule Capitol Hill, But In Baltimore It Can Barely Fill A Ballot

Frank Klein
ELEPHANT'S GRAVEYARD: Duane Shelton recently took over as chairman of the city's Republican Party

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 11/1/2006

In Baltimore City, the situation remains dire for the Party of Lincoln. Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by a factor of eight; there has not been a Republican member of the City Council since the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

"We haven't had an elected official on the City Council--this is ridiculous--in 68 years," says Victor Clark Jr., who has been trying to organize and promote the Republican Party in Baltimore for three decades.

For such a situation to abide, one would expect the city's Democratic leaders to be exemplary--joyous professionals whose administration of Baltimore has resulted in a grand prosperity, broad equality, and a sublime beauty that transcends mere politics. Yet this is not the case. How could the Republicans fail to take advantage?

That question has lately animated the city's Republican Central Committee--the organizational crucible from which the party's work is done and its nominees for public office are supposed to spring. On Oct. 26, 14 party stalwarts voted Duane Shelton the new chairman in a three-way election. He won with seven votes.

Shelton says he plans to increase the local party's fundraising. "We have 30,000 Republicans in Baltimore," he says. "We haven't reached out and touched that many."

During the past four years, the city's Republicans have been unable to capitalize on Robert Ehrlich's election as governor. Breaking a 36-year losing streak, that historic victory opened myriad opportunities both for reform and patronage. To be sure, some of Baltimore's party faithful got state jobs (Clark is at the Department of Business and Economic Development, for example). Some others took on substantial responsibilities without pay. But the overall boost in civic involvement and power has, so far anyway, failed to expand the ranks of Republicans in Baltimore.

In fact, the Republican Party lost 500 Baltimore City members between the general elections of 2000 and '04, according to the Maryland State Board of Elections (more recent figures are not available). That's not as bad as it appears, since the Democrats lost 10,000 voters during the same period. As a percentage of city voters, the Republicans stood pat at about 9.6 percent, while the Democrats lost ground. As of 2004, they made up about 80 percent of the city's electorate, down from 83 percent in 2000.

Still, the city's Republican population is so sparse that the party has failed even to nominate candidates in most local legislative races. In districts 40 and 45, three Democratic candidates for delegate are running entirely unopposed by Republicans. In districts 41, 43, and 46 the three-member Democratic slates face only a lone Republican opponent. In districts 41 and 43, the party has fielded no state Senate candidate.

This is nothing new. In 2004 Republicans ran Elbert "Ray" Henderson for mayor against Martin O'Malley. Henderson, a veteran and landlord, made the rounds at community forums, where he carped about O'Malley's failure to stem crime. Those evening meetings required an unusual level of dedication for Henderson, including a 28-mile commute, as he resides in Carroll County and used his mother's Baltimore address to meet the lax residency requirement.

Henderson was not exactly the city Republicans' recruit. "It was a personal decision on his part" to run for mayor, Iris Bellamy says. "The party tried as best as possible to try to get him around" to neighborhood forums.

Bellamy is a central committee member and serves as Baltimore chair of Lt. Gov. Michael Steele's U.S. Senate campaign. She says she looks forward to a reinvigorated party. "It's time for a change for everybody," she says. "We can't keep doing it the same way. The party needs to grow. We need to grow candidates. It's now or never." Her position is echoed by many other central committee members.

"We haven't done a major outreach as well as I thought we should have," Clark says. "But we have done a lot of activity . . . mostly with new and young entrepreneurs." He says those budding business owners have the potential to form the core of the city's Republican Party, if only the party will patiently bring them into the fold.

"People want to help grow the party," says Joseph Brown Jr., a central committee member who ran for City Council in 1995 and '99. He vied for the central committee chairmanship last week but received none of the 12 votes cast because a work-related obligation made him 40 minutes late for the meeting. "I think [Shelton] will do a good job," Brown says.

"In the last four years I went from one end of this state to the other, and I've talked to a lot of people, particularly here in Baltimore," says the Rev. Frankie Powell, who received five votes in his run for city central committee chairman, finishing second to Shelton (two of the 14 members abstained). "And now we see a lot of people who are moving here, job-wise. We see how they are helping people in the election process . . . we used to just see middle-class whites. I've seen a big change in the African-American community."

No one speaks ill of Donald Farber, the central committee's former chairman, who lost his seat on the committee in a September primary election. Yet the desperate need to find, develop, and recruit Republicans--particularly African-Americans--to the local party can be illustrated by several odd facts. Begin with this: Some of Baltimore City's most prominent Republican campaign aides working today are not, in fact, Republicans. Hassan Giordano has been drumming up support for Steele's Senate campaign for the past several months, but he's an independent, not a Republican. "I register people to vote for a living," Giordano says. "More and more of them are, or tend to be, more conservative . . . but they don't identify with the [Republican] party outright."

Giordano suggests Steele aide Zachary McDaniels as a good spokesman for Republicans in the city. But McDaniels--a former chief of staff to Democratic state Sen. Clarence Mitchell IV--is no such thing. "I'm not a Republican," he explains. "I'm still an independent." Even Catalina Byrd--another Giordano contact and Victor Clark's daughter--says she is not a Republican.

Other city residents, though staunch Republicans, have in recent years declined to take leading roles in the city central committee--sometimes because of the official state positions to which Ehrlich appointed them. "I personally have not been as active, though I still consider myself a very strong Republican," says David Tufaro, a developer and 1999 mayoral candidate. "I have viewed the role of serving on the state school board as a nonpartisan role."

John West III, a longtime Ehrlich friend and political supporter who's now head of the judicial nominating commission for the state appellate courts, says something similar. He cites Roland Park Civic League platform representative David Blumberg as the "titular head" of the city Republicans. "There's no real head of the Republican Party in the city," West adds. (Blumberg chaired the city's Republican Central Committee for most of the 1980s and '90s but currently is not listed as a member. He chairs the state parole board and generally declines to comment on political issues, citing his state position).

That still leaves a lot of people with long service to the party, many of whom would like to see younger people take their place.

"The leaders need to be about people, and building up people," says Bellamy. "You should be trying to grow your party and replace yourself. I like what I do but I don't want to do it until I'm too old to be effective."

Shelton plans to get on with that--as soon as Gov. Ehrlich is re-elected. "We're all working," Shelton says. "This year, we've made more phone calls than we've ever made. We're calling people trying to get volunteers, we're trying to get people to get out and vote. And we're reaching out to people who aren't our base."

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