Thursday, February 28, 2013

Party Poopers

Finally I turn my attention to a topic I’ve addressed many times in the past, but am loathe to do again: The race for MDGOP chairman.

Haven’t we been here before? Um, yes, actually. Next month the Maryland Republican Party will choose its fifth chairman in seven years. Only the red shirted crewmen on Star Trek have a less impressive survival rate.

So what goes into being MDGOP chairman? My friend and fellow blogger Joe Steffen summarized it as follows in a recent blog:

"Qualifications:  You Must Not be Dead. Expectations: You Can Expect to Get Your Ass Handed to You on a Regular, if Not Daily, Basis by Various Party Malcontents; You Must Perform the Impossible in an Impossible Job. Pay: Commensurate to That of a Dog."

I can think of one recent chair who may not have actually met the “qualifications” specified above, but I digress.

The point Steffen makes is valid. The position of MDGOP chairman is a thankless job that comes with lots of road trips, endless chicken dinners, backbiting, never-ending blame, and – in the end – inevitable electoral failure.

Thomas Hobbes may just as well have been writing about the life of an MDGOP chairman when he coined the phrase, “solitary, poor, brutish, nasty, and short.”

The last chairman, Alex Mooney, decided to cut bait a little more than two years into his four year term. Can you blame him? And, can you blame the people who have been mentioned as possible successors who instead chose to (paraphrasing Hedley Lamar in Blazing Saddles) stay away in droves?

I’ve engaged in informal brainstorming sessions with some politically savvy people during the past few weeks regarding this whole chairman conundrum. Each of us is able to come up with our own wish lists. But inevitably, the people we would like to see run opt out of it.

To date, only Red Maryland’s Greg Kline has stepped up to challenge First Vice Chairman Diana Waterman for the position. I spoke with another individual recently who contemplated jumping into the  fray, but now seems to be leaning against it. So, unless Kline succeeds in penetrating the clannish, fractious world of the Maryland State Republican Central Committee, it seems to be Waterman’s for the taking.

Among party activists, I sense an air of inevitability about Waterman’s ascension, but not a lot of enthusiasm. It’s not that people don’t like Waterman personally. It’s that people don’t necessarily see her as the kind of change agent who can jump start the MDGOP’s moribund fortunes.

Perhaps one reason for that is the party’s own bylaws exclude an entire group of qualified, experienced partisans from seeking the position.

Article 5, section 5.5 of the party bylaws reads:

a.            Qualifications.
All officers of the Party must be registered Republican voters of Maryland, both at the time of their elections and throughout their terms of office.
No person may simultaneously serve as more than one officer of the Party.
(3)          No individual may either hold or seek elected public office while serving as an officer of the Party

What this means is that some of the party’s standout officeholders – people who have actually built grassroots organizations, understand policy, and raised money – couldn’t seek the position even if they wanted it.

I don’t know why this is the case, but I do know this prohibition has not always been in place. Then-Congresswoman Helen Bentley pursued and won the party’s National Committeewoman slot back in 1988.

I also know that there is no such prohibition at the national level. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the poodle-headed chair of the DNC, is also a sitting member of Congress. Among Republicans, Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore and Senator Bob Dole both served as RNC chairman while they kept their elected day jobs.

I can think of a lot of smart, talented, ambitious people among the MDGOP’s elected ranks – including Delegates Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, Kathy Szeliga, Kelly Schulz, Justin Ready, and Kathy Afzali; Senators Allan Kittleman, David Brinkley, J. B. Jennings and Nancy Jacobs; and local officials such as Baltimore County Councilman David Marks – who could make excellent MDGOP chairs under the right circumstances. Perhaps none of these people would actually want the job, but it would be nice to know they were not automatically disqualified from holding it should some of us want to try to change their minds.

The last several people who served as MDGOP chairman left the position bruised, buffeted, and perhaps a bit demoralized. I suspect the incoming chair will as well. Electing the right person to the chairman’s position will not be an antidote to solving the party’s problems. But it is a good starting point.

Allowing the party’s elected officials to compete would ensure that every qualified candidate could be considered. Otherwise, the party will continue to recycle party regulars, or break into the party cemetery and resurrect leaders of the past, for a position that requires energy, innovation, new ideas, and a forward-looking vision.

In other words, maybe the best way for the MDGOP to start winning elections is for it to choose from among those who have recently and repeatedly done it.


  1. The list of those who have "recently and repeatedly done it" is not very long. I see two reasons for the separation of the two:

    First, conflict of interest. Can a Party Chair truly act in the best interest of the party while serving in office and/or running for re-election? Can he/she be fair if a primary challenger comes along? Can he/she put the party's fundraising efforts ahead of his/her own? (If Mooney was criticized for this, imagine someone who actually has a re-election campaign underway.) If the Chair were a sitting delegate and needed a particular Democrat's support on a bill he introduced, could it affect his support of a GOP candidate running against that Democrat? Above all, the Chair needs to serve as the party's referee and not demonstrate bias.

    Second, we barely have a critical mass of Republicans in Maryland as it is. If we start allowing the same people to hold elected office and serve as party officers, it will only concentrate the party further into a handful of people. That doesn't help end the recycling of party regulars; it perpetuates it.

    New ideas are only going to come from new people, even if it means choosing someone who may, in certain respects, have a longer learning curve.

  2. Hi Scott:

    I think you ably state some of the concerns which may arise by allowing elected officials to serve as MDGOP chairman. That said, your second argument effectively makes the case as to why elected officials should be part of the mix.

    You state, "If we start allowing the same people to hold elected office and serve as party officers, it will only concentrate the party further into a handful of people." That's exactly the situation we have now. All the recent chairs have come from within the party structure, including Alex Mooney, I would argue (albeit to a lesser extent).

    Party regulars are already being recycled, including the woman who now looks like she has a lock on the job. Look how difficult it was to get Nicolee Ambrose elected, even though she was the obvious fit for the job. Party inertia favored Audrey Scott in the beginning if, for no other reason, those jobs usually go to former chairs.

    Like me, I'm sure you've come up with names of people you'd like to see run, only to have them beg off. Anything that grows the list of qualified candidates is, in my opinion, a good development.

    Minimally I think the party should have the option to waive the prohibition against elected officials serving in circumstances in which it would benefit the party. This might not always be the case, and there may instances in which some of the concerns you raise might disqualify a given elected official from serving in party office. But in some circumstances it might work. The central committee should have the flexibility to make those judgments on a case-by-case basis.