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GOP chief wants to strengthen party

September 27, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Before Maryland Republicans can break the Democrats' 20-year stranglehold on statewide offices they must first strengthen the party, the state GOP chief said Monday.

Since assuming the party chairmanship nine months ago, Richard D. Bennett has moved to improve the party's visibility and finances.

Bennett, in Hagerstown Monday to drum up interest in a national GOP conference that the state is hosting this week, said the party would like to be able to offer financial support to its candidates for state senator and delegate.

"We have not done it, to be blunt," he said. "The party has not been strong financially We should be more involved."

Bennett, 52, said that is beginning to change, though. The party has raised about $500,000 so far this year - a record for a year directly following a gubernatorial election.

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In addition, the party has launched a World Wide Web site and has moved into spacious new quarters around the corner from the governor's office in Annapolis.

"We're very pleased with our progress since the disappointments of November '98," he said.

Those disappointments include gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey's weak showing against incumbent Gov. Parris N. Glendening and a net loss of six seats in the House of Delegates.

The election halted years of steady gains the GOP had made in the state legislature.

Bennett pointed to a number of long-term trends in the party's favor. The party's registration has jumped 21 percent over the last 10 years to 772,967. Democratic registration, which stands at just below 1.5 million, rose less than 4 percent over the same period.

Washington County has mirrored that trend. The GOP has overtaken the Democrats in party registration. That was one of the factors that provided the party one of its few bright spots last year - Del. Christopher B. Shank's upset victory over Democrat D. Bruce Poole.

"Chris Shank is a rising star in the Republican Party. Chris Shank is a real fresh face," Bennett said.

The most controversial change Bennett has brought is open primary voting. The state party approved a Bennett-supported initiative in May to allow independents to vote in the GOP primary next March.

"We think we need to broaden the base of the Republican Party," he said. "We need to hear from people who have consciously decided not to register Democrat."

Richard G. Everhart, who serves on the Washington County Republican Central Committee, said he was one of the few area party members who voted for the proposal at the state party convention.

"I think it's something we needed to try," he said. "I think it's something that can hurt us."

Bennett said the ultimate goal is making Maryland a true two-party state.

"We're not as far away as a lot of people think," he said.

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