State Republicans gather to pick new leaders

Party's chair to play vital role in 2018 governor's race

By Erin Cox and John FritzeThe Baltimore Sun

A month after apresidential election in which voters reaffirmed Maryland's position as one of the bluest states in the nation, state Republicans will gather today to choose new leadership — a contest likely to signal the direction the party will take heading into the 2018 governor's race.

Four candidates are running for a shot to lead the Maryland Republican Party, which will play a central role in working to re-elect GOP Gov. Larry Hogan and prove that his upset win two years ago in a Democratic state was not a fluke. The job will also involve bringing together a fractious party split even further this year by President-elect Donald Trump's campaign for the White House.

Some Republicans said they view the race as the latest internal struggle between long-established centrists and newcomers who backed Trump's campaign. Whatever the outcome, Republicans seem to agree that re-electing Hogan in 2018 is the paramount goal.

“2018 is the biggest election of our lives,” said Brian Griffiths, a former member of the GOP's executive committee and an influential blogger. “Once Governor Hogan wins, that means the Democrats will not control redistricting, and then we can draw fair congressional districts for the first time in generations.”

Officials are due to draw new congressional and legislative districts during the term of the next governor in 2021. In the past, Democrats have dominated that process, which has allowed them to turn a state that sent four Democrats and four Republicans to the House in 2001 to one that now sends seven Democrats and one Republican.

A Hogan re-election would give Republicans some say in the next round of redistricting. The governor has backed an independent process, as is practiced in California, New Jersey and other states.

Hogan has not made an endorsement in the contest for the party chairmanship — even though it will be important for him to have an ally in the position. Steve Crim, Hogan's 2014 campaign manager and current political adviser, said the governor decided to stay out of the internal race because he “believes in grass roots-up leadership.”

One candidate for the job, Sajid Tarar of Owings Mills, was the head of American Muslims for Trump. He spoke at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this year, which Hogan decided against attending.

Tarar “is a terrific fit for the chairman of the party and is exactly what we need to show the world that we are indeed inclusive of everyone,” said Joe Collins Jr., a member of the Baltimore City Republican Central Committee who helped organize Trump's campaign in Maryland.

“As far as I am concerned, there is no other qualified candidate to run the party, and the others running for chair are ancient relics of a party that is done with the same old cliches and busted ideas,” he said.

Others — including state Del. Kathy Szeliga of Baltimore County, who ran a disciplined but ultimately unsuccessful campaign for Maryland's open Senate seat this year — are backing Dirk Haire, a lawyer and longtime party activist who has also served as Hogan's campaign attorney.

“He is smart and helpful and involved,” Szeliga said. “He possesses all the qualities that I think are necessary.”

The next chairman is to be selected by more than 300 county party officials today and will serve a four-year term. The winner will replace Diana Waterman.

“The biggest job of the next chairman and the next leadership will be to make sure that we re-elect Governor Hogan and hold our seats in General Assembly,” Waterman said.

Maryland Republicans had an outstanding year in 2014. Not only did Hogan beat Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown in an upset, the party picked up several seats in the General Assembly.

Since those successes, the state GOP has also significantly improved its fundraising.

But while the wins had some state Republicans pining for a more purple Maryland, last month's presidential election appeared to deflate those aspirations. Democrat Hillary Clinton captured nearly 60 percent of the Maryland vote, giving her one of her largest margins of victory anywhere in the country.

State Republicans caution against reading much into the results in a presidential election year, when turnout is traditionally higher than in gubernatorial election years.

They also point to Hogan's high popularity, which has crested 70 percent in Baltimore, a Democratic stronghold, along with more traditionally Republican parts of the state.

Several Democrats, including Del. Maggie McIntosh of Baltimore and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, are considering challenging Hogan in 2018.

The other candidates running for the Republican Party chairmanship include William Campbell, a former Amtrak official who has previously run for state comptroller, and William T. Newton, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for Maryland's 7th Congressional District this year.

Tarar said he wanted to focus on expanding the party's tent, “opening up the doors for diversity,” and building a connection between Trump's White House and the Hogan administration. He said he was disappointed Trump didn't perform better in Maryland, which has not backed a Republican for president since George H.W. Bush in 1988.

“I was hoping for and I was looking forward to the state of Maryland becoming a red state,” he said. “That's one of the reasons why I'm running.”

Haire agreed.

“Maryland has historically been a difficult state for Republicans,” he said. “I believe we are making very good progress on changing that.”

General Assembly

Dems in Md. go on defense

General Assembly prepares to respond to Trump administration

By Ian DuncanThe Baltimore Sun

Democrats in Maryland are looking for ways to use this year's General Assembly session to protect the legacy of President Barack Obama and blunt the impact of sweeping changes they fear the Trump administration will usher in.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat, said he is ready to do battle after Republican President-elect Donald J. Trump is inaugurated Friday in Washington.

“We're going to be playing defense,” Miller said. “We're not going to stop progress for anybody.”

Democrats were battered in last year's elections, losing the White House and failing to take control of the U.S. Senate or make inroads against Republican ascendancy in state elected offices. But the party retains a tight grip on the legislature in Maryland, and lawmakers and activists say they will use their power to preserve Obama-era policies, including expanded access to health insurance, protections for undocumented immigrants and new environmental standards.

Two lawmakers have even introduced legislation aimed at keeping Trump off the state's ballot in 2020 unless he releases his tax returns in full.

Other states where Democrats hold power are taking related actions. California hired former attorney general Eric Holder to defend the state's laws. In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo promised to use the state legislature to show the country an alternative way to help the angst-ridden middle class. And the District of Columbia set aside $25,000 to pay for the legal defense of immigrants that might be deported under the Trump administration.

“Folks feel re-energized,” said Del. Cory McCray, a Baltimore Democrat. “The work is done on the ground level. The state government, the local government is close to the people.”

But in Maryland, Democrats must deal with a popular Republican governor who gets to shape the state budget and can veto legislation.

Republican leaders in the General Assembly, meanwhile, say they are buoyed by Trump's win. Del. Nic Kipke, the party's leader in the House of Delegates, said he was optimistic that the new president would roll back changes implemented under Obama and warned Democrats not to go too far in seeking to frustrate the Trump administration.

“They need to make sure they don't put politics ahead of what is best for our citizens and that's not something that they're good at in my experience,” he said.

The Trump transition team did not respond to a request for comment.

Among the first major shifts to come out of Washington is proposing to end of the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans in Congress have moved to repeal. Trump has said he wants the law swept aside immediately, potentially leaving in the lurch some 400,000 Marylanders who gained health coverage under the law.

It's unlikely Maryland could afford to pay for those individuals' care by itself, but Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat, said the state should seek ways to fill at least part of any gap that is left.

“We're going to have major challenges,” he said. “We're going to fight for the people who are going to be left without health protection.”

Pinsky, vice chairman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, did not offer a specific plan.

Trump's administration is also expected to deviate from Obama's immigration policy, and could undo measures that let people who arrived in the country illegally as children work and study legally. Some predict Trump will also seek to step up the rate at which people are deported.

KimPropeack, a campaigner with immigrant group CASA de Maryland, said her organization's members were feeling a “heightened sense of terror.”

Anticipating a victory by Democrat Hillary Clinton at the polls, Propeack said the group expected to focus its efforts in Annapolis on access to health care for undocumented immigrants. Now, their priority is a measure that would bar police and other officials in Maryland from aiding deportation efforts — a version of the sanctuary policies adopted by some cities and counties.

Activists also plan to seek another change that would allow child immigrants who lose their legal status to continue college studies. Maryland voters adopted the Dream Act in 2012, which opened a route for undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition for college, but Propeack said that law imposed more onerous conditions on students than the Obama provisions.

The environment is another area that Democrats are focused on. Miller told reporters last week that significant changes to Obama's policies could be damaging for the Chesapeake Bay. Miller said he has little faith in Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, Trump's choice to run the Environmental Protection Agency.

In 2010, the Obama administration spelled out steps to curb pollution in the bay, including limits on fertilizer use, rules on the treatment of sewage and instructions for local governments to reduce runoff.

“The guy who's in charge of the environment wants to abolish his own department and wants to undo the regulations,” Miller said.

Meanwhile, Pinsky and Del. Jimmy Tarlau, also a Prince George's Democrat, plan to introduce legislation that would block Trump from Maryland's ballot in 2020 unless he publicly releases five years of tax returns. For decades, presidents have released their returns, but Trump has refused to do so while the Internal Revenue Service is auditing them.

Still, members of both parties have said they might be able to collaborate with the Trump administration on some issues.

Catherine Pugh, the new Democratic mayor of Baltimore and a former state senator, said revamping infrastructure is one area where she sees common ground with Trump. Hogan has said he thinks Maryland becoming the site of a new FBI headquarters is a “slam dunk” with Trump in the White House. Virginia — led by Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a longtime Clinton backer — is Maryland's competition.

Politically, Trump's victory is already shaping the 2018 election, when Maryland will elect a governor and 188 legislators.

Democrats say they are looking for ways to hitch Hogan to policies enacted by Trump, who doesn't share the governor's popularity in Maryland. In interviews, Democratic lawmakers highlighted both men's use of social media to spread their message.

Last week, Hogan showed a moment of exasperation with questions about Trump, batting away an inquiry about the new administration's impact on the police reform agreement in Baltimore. He called the question “stupid.”

Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Hogan, said the governor will respond to changes coming from Washington once the Trump administration takes action.

“The governor sees this third session as an excellent time to get things done,” he said.

Del. Andrew Platt, a Montgomery County Democrat, acknowledged that tying the governor to the president could prove difficult.

“He's showing himself to be quite nimble on some political issues,” Del. David Moon, a Montgomery County Democrat, said of Hogan.

Kipke offered a blunter assessment of the Democrats' effort.

“It's just looked silly and rather desperate,” he said.


Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.