In another sign of Republican dominance in Howard County, the sheriff and register of wills switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican side yesterday, saying they were more comfortable with the GOP.
"I've always been a conservative Democrat," said county Sheriff Michael Chiuchiolo, who won about 60 percent of the county vote in the 1994 election as a Democrat. "This is not a sudden decision on my part. It's something I've contemplated for a long time."
Sheriff Chiuchiolo joined Kay Hartleb, the register of wills, and about 10 others from their offices in registering yesterday with the Republican Party. The move came six days before the registration deadline for the 1996 primary.
The defections are the latest blow to the county's Democratic Party, which has seen its hold on local offices slip during the past five years.
For the first time in memory, six of the seven elected officials at the county courthouse -- the sheriff, register of wills, state's attorney, clerk of court and two of three Orphans' Court judges -- are Republicans. Orphans' Court Judge Rosemary Ford remains the only Democrat of the seven officials.
Two-term County Executive Charles I. Ecker is a Republican. And last year the GOP won three of five seats on the Howard County Council, taking a majority for the first time in county history.
Countywide, Republicans have narrowed the voter-registration gap from a 2-to-1 Democratic lead in 1990 to about 1.3-to-1 today.
"The trend is following what is happening nationally," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat from Columbia who after one term as county executive was defeated in 1990 by Mr. Ecker. "This is going to go down as a pretty tragic point in U.S. history. But given what's happening with Newt Gingrich in Congress, I think we might see that changing."
Del. Shane Pendergrass, another Columbia Democrat, said she didn't understand why officials would switch parties. "By the time you're elected, I would think, you know if you fit or don't fit," she said.
Sheriff Chiuchiolo -- who led Democrats supporting Mr. Ecker in the 1994 election -- said that before he was elected he had no intention of changing his affiliation. He said he began thinking seriously about it the past several months.
"It really is not that big a deal," Sheriff Chiuchiolo said. "It's strictly an ideological thing."
Ms. Hartleb said she, too, changed because of ideology and not simply because the political tide is running in favor of Republicans. "I just feel my political philosophy is more in line with the Republican Party," she said.
Republican leaders hailed their party's newcomers as another sign that the GOP is growing and gaining strength. Last night, members celebrated at a reception at Sheriff Chiuchiolo's home that included former gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey.
"I think it just goes to show a changing of the guard in Howard County," said Allan Kittleman, chairman of the county's Republican Central Committee.
"Now the Democrats really represent the left wing of society. Most people want less government. Most people want more freedom of choice," he said.
But the head of Howard's Democrats, Carole Fisher, played down the two politicians' switch. "They changed for ideological reasons as opposed to a lot of people who think the change is going to help them some other way," she said. "It's painful, but I respect that."
At Maryland Democratic Party headquarters, Executive Director Richard Parsons said the defections didn't signal big trouble for his party.
"Every time someone switches, you get this, 'Oh boy, the Democrats are dead' stuff. I don't think that's warranted," he said.
Mr. Parsons cited recent strong Democratic showings in Baltimore City and Worcester County elections.
As for the two Howard County officials who changed parties, Mr. Parsons said, "It's disappointing to see people switch to the Republican Party.
"But if people truly want to support the party of Newt Gingrich and Phil Gramm and the party that wants to cut education, Medicare and other programs that help working people, they wouldn't be comfortable being Democrats anyway."