Like many elected officials, state Sen. J.B. Jennings likes to pop into a meeting of the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee every so often to mingle with the party faithful.
He was not prepared for the chaotic scene on Monday night: members speaking out of turn, refusing to accept the chairman's agenda; a Scripture reading gone awry, and finally people walking out.
"I was blindsided," said Jennings, an Air Force reservist who has been on military leave for the past five months. "I was not expecting that. I've known they had some issues."
Long before this week, chairman Tony Campbell had lost control of the group. Campbell, elected last fall by a slim margin, and the committee have spent nine months squabbling over a range of issues. Members came to the meeting this week demanding his resignation and in the end, he agreed to give it, as a series of political gaffes, poor fundraising and growing isolation from local elected officials proved too daunting to overcome.
By outside appearances, these are flush times for Republicans in Baltimore County. The party doubled its representation on the County Council in last fall's election, and newcomers David Marks and Todd Huff appear to work collaboratively with their colleagues on the Democrat-heavy panel. Three Democratic lawmakers even agreed to sign onto an effort to halt the state law that gives in-state tuition rates to some illegal immigrants.
But behind the scenes, it's been a shaky nine months for the central committee.
"Very contentious," said Hillary Pennington, who was elected to the committee last fall. "People have been on the fence over whether to resign. I know I've been there."
From the beginning, Campbell was a curious pick for chairman — described by some as an outsider who had campaigned for President Barack Obama, and endorsed by conservative talk show radio host and Republican Del. Pat McDonough. And Campbell and the committee got off to a rocky start.
Campbell came under fire for suggesting the group support Democrat Kenneth N. Oliver as County Council chairman and requesting compensation for organizing a fundraiser for Republican candidates.
Less than a week after being sworn in, Campbell challenged members to impeach him.
Marks, who served on the committee for 12 years, said the central committee has made minimal outreach to him or Huff since their election. He said that he was taken aback by the committee's response — or lack thereof — when extremely conservative activists hammered the pair over the expansion of speed cameras in the county. "I would think the central committee would have played a role in defending us and that never happened."
Amid fights played out on blogs and in the media, members said Campbell's leadership efforts never gained traction. When the annual Lincoln/Reagan Dinner failed to bring much in the way of dollars or attendees, for many, that was the final straw.
"Tony is a good person with a good spirit who loves his country. However, he was never able to inspire people to follow his direction and he was never able to make people understand what he was trying to do," said Al Mendelsohn, the committee's first vice chairman. "In a volunteer organization, people have to believe in what they're doing and see that what they are being asked to do is going to benefit the cause they care about."
For his part, Campbell said he agreed to step down because his leadership had become a distraction.
"It's about the Republican Party," he said. "It's not about me, and unfortunately, it's all become about me."
However, some said the committee's problems also reflect the larger struggles of the Republican Party nationwide in shaping its identity.
Jon Herbst, a new committee member who ran unsuccessfully for the County Council last fall, blames McDonough — known for his efforts to make English the state's official language — for a lot of the divisiveness.
"We've got to address the underlying problem and it was not all Chairman Campbell's doing," Herbst said. "The reality is the Republican Party has been hijacked by the religious right, not just in Baltimore County but across the country. As long as Pat McDonough, Brian Murphy and Sarah Palin are the face of the Republican Party, the party is simply not going to appeal to mainstream voters."
Members said they are now focused on the future. A member since the 1990s, Mendelsohn said he plans to seek the chairmanship once Campbell formally resigns, hoping to build on the party's successes.
"When we have the money to buy the print, radio and TV ads, people are receptive to the message of personal responsibility and low taxes," he said.
Marks said he hopes to become more involved. While he had good things to say about Campbell personally, he suggested that the next chairman think more like an elected official in one respect:
"Watch what they are saying and make sure it's reflective of the entire group."
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