By now most who follow Maryland politics know that there’s a push to have state Republican Party chairman Dr. James Pelura resign his office due to questionable personnel moves. If they haven’t found that out then they must not read the state’s major newspapers, which have gleefully reported the news in their print editions or blogs.
While it may not have been on the scale of the “Saturday Night Massacre”, the firing of Executive Director Justin Ready and resignation of events coordinator April Rose shortly afterward do raise questions as to reasoning, particularly as the MDGOP is in a stretch of events designed to build awareness and let Maryland voters know that we are the best alternative to the tax-and-spend policies of the Democrats. (Included in that is a scheduled upcoming event locally at the Delmarva Shorebirds game July 31st.)
Certainly I feel that a more detailed explanation of the Ready firing is warranted and Pelura has called a meeting of the Republican Party’s Executive Committee, ostensibly to give this accounting. However, there is an undercurrent to this whole affair that’s not been spoken about much, and it has to do with another power struggle within the Maryland Republican Party. This power struggle has less to do with the titular head of the state GOP and more to do with who really controls it.
Much as having President Bush serve (for better or worse) as the face of the Republican Party nationally during his term in office, the Maryland Republican Party during the 2002-2006 term was essentially under the control of Governor Robert Ehrlich. It was rarified air for the state party, who hadn’t been in control of the governor’s chair since the days of Spiro Agnew, and those heady times allowed the Republican Party here in Maryland to exert a little bit of sway over the political process, despite the fact that Democrats still held a massive advantage in the state’s General Assembly.
After Ehrlich’s disappointing defeat in 2006, the party split into three warring factions. These factions had been held together by having Ehrlich in Government House, but once Martin O’Malley won power the gloves were off.
On one side you had the Ehrlich holdovers who wished to control the MDGOP apparatus and prepare for his certain return in 2010. (We’re still waiting to find out whether the former Governor craves an O’Malley rematch or would rather move back to Washington as a United States Senator.) It’s no stretch to wonder if the Ehrlich camp is more interested in helping the GOP or in his political career enhancement – while the former Governor remains popular among Republicans he hasn’t taken much of a lead in building the party as a whole and has remained silent thus far through this most recent episode.
Secondly, you have the Republicans in the General Assembly. After Ehrlich’s defeat they became the de facto leaders of the party at the state level and many have been at odds with Chairman Pelura since day one. Obviously they’re frustrated by their lack of power in Annapolis and perceive Dr. Pelura as not being helpful to their prospects in 2010 – particularly the legislators take offense to Jim’s criticism of some of their votes, most notably on the budget. Having seen the voting record of many in the GOP caucus on key issues I would also caution them to look in the mirror before shifting blame to a party chairman and ask themselves if they are contributing the the party’s success or kidding themselves into thinking they’re enhancing their own re-election prospects by kowtowing to the majority.
The third side of this triangle is representative of the party’s rank-and-file grassroots. This group is comprised out of the hundreds of Central Committee members who function as the local eyes and ears of the Maryland GOP, and it was their vote which elected Jim Pelura in the first place. For the record, I voted for Pelura’s opponent in 2006 but to me Jim has proven to be a relatively effective Chairman given the financial situation and anti-Republican climate he inherited. Perhaps the alternative may have been better but we’re not going to find out at this late date.
But while I portray the Central Committees as one side of a three-sided skirmish over the direction and prospects of the Maryland GOP going forward, in reality they are the most fractured of the sides because the other two factions have their representatives on both the Central Committees and the party’s Executive Committee, which is drawn mainly (but not exclusively) from the Chairmen of each of Maryland’s 24 local Central Committees, representing Maryland’s 23 counties and Baltimore City. Also included on the Executive Committee are three Vice-Chairs as well as a secretary, treasurer, the National Commiteeman and National Committeewoman from Maryland, and representatives from selected Republican ancilliary groups such as the Maryland Young Republicans and Maryland Federation of Republican Women, among others. (Editor’s note: not all of these people and groups receive a vote according to state by-laws. Voting positions go to the Party Chair, three Vice-Chairs, National Committeeman, National Committeewoman, the 24 County Chairmen, and the MFRW.)
Now that I’ve gone through the players, this tale leads to a back story which I also feel is key to this push to oust Chairman Pelura.
Over the last several state conventions (which are held twice a year), there has been a bid from several of the smaller counties to change the three Vice-Chair positions to those of regional Vice-Chairs which would be selected by a vote of each region. The proposals have varied but generally would have broken the state into anywhere from four to six regions based on geography and some attempt for equal voting strength. (The Eastern Region, of which Wicomico County would be part, would still be, by far, the weakest under the voting practice that has been in place for the last several years.)
With this effort to create a more decentralized approach, a schism has developed between those smaller counties which vote Republican but have little impact on statewide results and larger counties where more Republicans live but where GOP loyalists get swamped on Election Day by a tide of Democrat voters who have a stake in maintaining a bloated state and federal bureaucracy. It’s those larger counties which generally carry the state as a whole for the Democrats (with the exception of Anne Arundel County, which tinges a reddish-purple and is home to Annapolis, the state capital) but also control the direction of the Republican Party in Maryland and serve as home base for much of the party’s leadership.
Furthermore, the delegations from the smaller, more rural counties tend to be the most conservative amongst the Republicans in the Free State – conversely, those from more urban areas often fall into the category of moderates. To some extent it’s a reflection of their electorate but one could also contend that the GOP doesn’t present a clear alternative to Democrats in many districts because of this perception. Regardless, there are a number of Republicans hailing from the larger counties who have a barely controlled contempt for their country cousins.
This came to a head at last May’s convention when a representative from Somerset County, the state’s smallest GOP delegation in terms of voter registration numbers and convention voting strength, openly questioned why his delegation should continue to attend the convention when his county’s votes were rendered essentially meaningless. Moreover, three of the eight other Eastern Shore counties sent no representatives to the event.
In attempting to allay the concerns of the more rural counties such as Somerset (which lies adjacent to my home county of Wicomico), I believe some of the representatives of the larger counties also see Pelura as a threat to their power base; a Judas to their cause as Pelura hails from Anne Arundel County. The Ready firing just provided a convenient excuse to execute their plan – after all, no one made a similar play after Ready’s predecessor left. If Pelura is ousted as Chairman, there is no guarantee that these small-county concerns will get a fair hearing at the next state convention.
Bottom line – there exists a very real possibility that the ouster of Pelura (who would be replaced by Chris Cavey, a leading voice of the criticism) may spur smaller counties to take matters into their own hands and boycott the next convention. If enough do so party business could not occur.
No one is classifying this as a threat just yet, but given the chilly reception that the smaller county delegations receive at the state events as their pet proposals are belittled and concerns are mocked, the powers-that-be at the state level would be wise to think carefully about what happens beyond the term of one man before arranging a palace coup.
It’s unfortunate that our Republican Party is in this catfight a year out from a major election where prospects for sizeable gains are outstanding. While Dr. Pelura has made mistakes along the way, much of the problem seems to be that those who grew fat and happy at the table don’t want to lose their place there.
The TEA Party movement, of which I consider myself a small part, exists to a great extent because average voters became fed up with Republicans who go along to get along. I feel Jim Pelura is trying to be part of the solution rather than continuing to be part of the problem with the Maryland Republican Party. Maybe he won’t be at the next TEA Party, but I damn well hope to see him serving as Chair at the next state party convention.