ANNAPOLIS – After Joyce Lyons Terhes decided to run for office in heavily Democratic Calvert County 10 years ago, an attorney she knew told her that as a Republican and a woman she stood no chance.
“As a Republican and a woman,” Terhes, 55, repeats disapprovingly today. “My back went up and I … just worked that much harder,” she said.
Terhes won the election for Calvert County commissioner, collecting more votes than any of the other candidates for the five positions. And now, as chairwoman of the Maryland Republican Party, she is transforming the role of Republicans and women in Maryland politics.
Under her stewardship, which began in 1989, the party has grown from a blip on the state’s political radar screen to a formidable opposition party:
* The number of Republicans in the Maryland legislature has more than doubled since 1989, from 22 to 56.
* The Democratic party advantage in registered voters has shrunk from 2.2 to 1 in 1990 to 1.9 to 1 in 1995.
* Instead of being in debt $40,000 and unable to pay its bills, the party has a surplus.
During this period, the role of women within the party has also grown. In 1989, there were only five Republican women in the Maryland legislature. Today, there are 12.
As if to emphasize this growing influence of women within the party, former state Del. Ellen Sauerbrey came within 6,000 votes of beating Democrat Parris Glendening for governor in 1994.
“She pulled the party together,” Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, said of Terhes.
Former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, who lost the gubernatorial primary to Sauerbrey, said Terhes has worked hard to unify the party.
“She’s given a whole lot of time,” Bentley said. “Probably more time than anybody else ever has as chairman.”
Even Rich Parsons, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, concedes Maryland is now a two-party state. “I think the Republicans in Maryland under her leadership have been aggressive,” he said.
The party made its advances after a bitter intra-party feud that resulted in the resignation of Terhes’ predecessor, Daniel Fleming.
To be sure, much of the recent Republican success may be attributable to the national tide toward conservatism that some Democrats claim has ebbed. That tide allowed Republicans to gain control of Congress in 1994.
In addition, some hard-line conservatives in Terhes’ party contend she does not take tough enough stands.
Terhes has taken heat, for example, for not sufficiently supporting Republicans’ allegations of election irregularities in the 1994 governor’s race.
“I think that Joyce Terhes needs to act more like a leader and less like a person waiting to make sure it’s safe to speak,” said Guy Sabatino, president of the conservative Republican Club of Maryland.
Terhes agrees there were problems in the 1994 gubernatorial election.
“I think Sauerbrey truly won it, but we’ll never be able to prove it,” she said. “But we’ve got to put that behind us.”
She also agrees that a leader must act decisively. “You have to take a position,” she said. Terhes cites former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher as a role model.
“She would say, `When you walk down the middle of the road, you get hit from both sides,’ ” Terhes said.
But she has tried to avoid siding with one faction over another. Many credit her with helping to keep the state party together after the Bentley-Sauerbrey battle.
“Joyce lined up the party in such a way that no matter who won the primary, we’d support the winner,” said Ann Horner Granados, chairwoman of the Worcester County Republican Central Committee. “She picked us up from a divisive group and she’s pulled us back together again.”
Terhes’ next challenge will be to help unite the Maryland GOP around the likely presidential nominee, Sen. Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan.
Dole won Maryland’s primary March 5 with 53 percent of the vote. Pat Buchanan followed, with 21 percent.
“During the primary, the state party cannot take sides,” she said. But now, the party can start organizing efforts to build coalitions, register voters and get out the vote in November, she said.
Terhes became interested in politics at an early age.
“My parents would talk politics a lot,” said the youngest of four children.
“They encouraged us to do what we wanted to do, to aim high,” she said.
“I remember watching the [1956 national party conventions] and being so interested and thinking, one of these days, one of these days…”
Terhes has tried to convey that thrill about politics to others. She majored in history at Mary Washington College of the University of Virginia, then taught government and history to junior high school students for 20 years.
She co-authored several textbooks on the history and culture of the United States and other countries.
Throughout, Terhes – who last month was named one of Maryland’s top 100 women by Warfield’s Business Record – has encouraged women to get into politics.
“I am a real believer in encouraging women to look at themselves as candidates,” she said. “I think that we look at issues closer and I think we are more concerned about constituent service.” “If I can be a role model to get more women involved in politics … I’m happy.” -30-