PHILADELPHIA – The election to fill the seat of outgoing Maryland Republican Party Chairman Richard D. Bennett is still five months away but the jockeying for the position has already begun, with three party members vying for the position.
Party first vice chairman Michael Steele is seen by many as the front- runner in a field that includes state party counsel Chris West and Baltimore physician Ron Dworkin.
Bennett, who is stepping down in September after serving two years of a four-year term, would not say whether he is supporting one candidate or another. But Bennett said the next chairman should be prepared to put in long hours.
“I’ve got so many commitments that I have to step down,” said Bennett, a former candidate for attorney general and lieutenant governor who is quitting to devote more time to his law practice. “I just don’t have the time.
“I can only contribute 20 percent. Hopefully the next person can give 30 or 35 percent,” said Bennett, 52, who recently raised eyebrows in the party by successfully defending state Delegate Tony Fulton, D-Baltimore, against fraud charges.
The party chairman is a volunteer who is elected by the Republican Central Committees of the 23 counties in Maryland, plus the city of Baltimore.
Steele said he has the presence and dedication to push the party back into power in what has traditionally been a heavily Democratic state.
“For me, it’s about the passion,” said Steele, who is also chairman of the Prince George’s County Republicans. “It’s about taking the party in a new direction.”
Steele, who was a delegate to the 2000 Republican National Convention this week, said that while he hopes to elect more Republicans to statewide office, the real test will be to elect Republicans at the local level.
“The real indicator for our party’s success will be to elect more Republicans at the municipal level,” he said. “But we haven’t turned that corner yet.”
If elected, Steele, 41, would be the first black chairman of a state Republican party, a point that is not lost on two-time Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen Sauerbrey.
“He is articulate with a face that demonstrates the growing diversity of the party,” she said. “He’s a terrific candidate.”
Even West, 50, acknowledges that Steele has the best chance for the job.
“He’s the front-runner,” West said. “It’s the most natural course of action for the first vice chair to move up to that position.”
A former state party executive director, West has also served on the central committees of Baltimore City and later Baltimore County. He has been party counsel since 1982.
If elected, West says he hopes to make the GOP more competitive in largely Democratic Maryland.
“I have what it takes to make Maryland into a two-party state,” he said. “One-party government is bad for Maryland. If there’s no competition, there’s no accountability.”
The third candidate, Ron Dworkin, 40, said he is running to put the party on a new course by providing more assistance for GOP candidates running for state office.
“We usually put our candidates out there on barbed wire,” he said. “We need to end 10 years of chronic losing.”
Dworkin also hopes to make the state party more independent of the national party by concentrating on issues more specific to Maryland.
“It’s not that I’m trying to make it more moderate, just more independent,” he said. Dworkin said the state party now is too often occupied with “generic issues that don’t relate to Maryland’s concerns.”
While he has not held any leadership positions in the state party, Dworkin served as a health policy advisor and fund-raiser to Sauerbrey during her unsuccessful 1998 bid for governor.
Carol Arscott, a Republican pollster, said raising money is indeed the chair’s most important duty – a task that Bennett seemed to enjoy least.
“Money is needed to get your party’s message out,” Arscott said. “Elected officials deliver that message and the only way to get them elected is to raise money.”
Sauerbrey said she is sorry to see Bennett go, but would not offer an endorsement of any candidate.
“They all have their individual strengths,” she said. “Now it will be about hustling around and getting votes.”
— Capital News Service reporter Kathryn Quigley contributed to this story.