Hurt finds peace in GOP Ex-Democratic leader 'miserable' before she switched parties; 'I suffered a heck of a lot'; Her opponent in race for County Council questions her beliefs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Wanda Hurt, Republican candidate for County Council, swears she suffered during her 13 years as a Democrat in Howard County.

She suffered as she labored during the 1980s and early 1990s to register Democratic voters, help organize party events and volunteer for local and statewide Democratic candidates.

She "couldn't understand" being nominated Democrat of the year in 1991, and said it was difficult to serve as president of the Columbia Democratic Club in 1992. She certainly didn't mean it when she called herself a "radical feminist," or when she later wrote of "the collective loss of national intelligence with the elections of Nixon, Reagan and Bush."

And don't even ask her about running for the House of Delegates as a Democrat in 1994.

"Yes, I was miserable as an active Democrat in this county," says Hurt, who switched to Republican in January 1995. "I suffered a heck of a lot."

Apparently, though, Hurt's torments weren't sufficient penance for her time as a Democrat. Her Republican opponent in the southern Howard County Council race, Kirk J. Halpin, is trying to punish her further, dutifully pointing out Hurt's past to the Republicans he meets going door to door.

"I'm a lifelong Republican. She was a Democrat," Halpin, 28, tells prospective primary voters in District 3, which includes North Laurel and a sliver of Columbia. "She switched parties and she's trying for County Council. Those are the facts, and I don't think she would be too proud of that."

In a race where Hurt enjoys the support of many in the Republican establishment and is considered the heir apparent to GOP Councilman Dennis R. Schrader, attacking Hurt's conservative credentials is Halpin's best hope for a primary upset.

"I question Ms. Hurt's convictions and beliefs," he says. "I have a lot of friends who were Democrats previously and have now switched, but they weren't president of the Columbia Democratic Club."

Hurt, 55, has shown some discomfort with her new party this year: She spoke out against the GOP's local income-tax cut during the education-budget battle, then retreated, saying she wouldn't second-guess the Republicans on the council.

For her part, Hurt says she has always been a Republican at

heart. She points out that her husband is a Republican and she was raised as a Young Republican. She says she almost didn't register as a Democrat when she moved to Howard in 1982.

"I was going to register Republican," she says. "My husband said, 'Join the Democrats, because that way we can get information from both parties.' "

While a Democrat here, Hurt says, she was "beat up" for her sometimes conservative views or had to keep some opinions to herself. She says she was "crucified" for advocating welfare reform before it became commonplace in Democratic circles this decade. She says she was under duress when she signed a pledge to support sweeping gun-control legislation as a candidate in 1994.

"I got so much pressure, I waffled and I signed it, but I disagreed with it," says Hurt, who adds that she did support some gun-control initiatives, such as banning assault weapons. She also doesn't oppose gun licensing, but, she said, "Am I going to go out and fight for it? No."

Other Democrats say they don't share Hurt's recollections on these issues. They also point out Hurt was a Democrat long before she came to Howard County. In fact, she never registered as a Republican until 1995.

Kansas native

Hurt was raised in Kansas as a Republican, attended the 1960 GOP national convention as a Young Republican, and says she can document it. But she happily chose to become a Democrat at age 17 in 1960 after shaking hands with presidential candidate John F. Kennedy.

And in Howard, Hurt acknowledges that she was, by outward appearances, an enthusiastic cheerleader for the Democratic Party. She wasn't just a Democrat to get information about local politics; she rose to the highest levels of local party activism, and her rhetoric was unabashedly pro-Democrat.

In the Columbia Democratic Club newsletter, for example, her president's messages frequently lampooned Republicans and celebrated Democrats.

Hurt in September 1992, after the Republican National Convention: "How do I think a Republican return to the White House could affect me? The thought is terrifying." And: "Yes, I am a Radical Feminist and proud of it."

Hurt in January 1993: "Finally, the end of twelve long years of Republicanism. Goodbye to Reaganomics, goodbye to Bushisms, hello to good solid Democratic government."

Hurt now: "I voted for Ronald Reagan twice. I voted for Richard Nixon. I voted for Gerald Ford." And: "I did not support Clinton."

And: "I'm not a feminist. As for women's groups, don't even get me started." She says she views the National Organization for Women as a "radical" group. "I don't think that they represent the average woman's views."

Hurt explains away her Democratic commentaries as "creative writing."

"I sometimes get carried away with literary license," she says. "There were probably a lot of other things that I wrote that were equally stupid and equally damaging, but I was president of the Columbia Democratic Club. If that was a sin, then maybe I'm the world's greatest sinner and I should do a penance in Rome in front of the Holy Father."

Democrats say they don't quite recognize this incarnation of Wanda Hurt -- though their comments may be tinged by their support for Hurt's Democratic opponent, Guy Guzzone, in the District 3 council race.

They say the Hurt they knew was a gleefully active pro-abortion-rights, pro-gun-control, pro-education-spending liberal.

(Hurt continues to favor abortion rights, but since switching to the GOP she has testified in Annapolis in support of the ban on a late-term abortion procedure known as "partial-birth abortion." She says she would have supported the ban just as fervently when she was a Democrat.)

'She never looked miserable'

"She never looked miserable to me, and at the time her views certainly seemed to be in sync," says Wendy Fiedler, vice chairwoman of the county Democratic Central Committee. "When she changed her party affiliation, I found it hard to understand how someone who had the beliefs that she had could make that change."

Former Columbia Democratic Club President James B. Kraft, who helped Hurt become president of the club in 1992 and still considers himself a friend, says he believes Hurt may feel comfortable as a Republican. But he says he doesn't believe Hurt's assertion that she quietly suffered as a Democrat.

"You always knew where you stood with her, and I think that she was a straight-shooter then," Kraft says. "To go back and say, 'I never believed any of that, I was in pain,' I think is just a misstatement of the facts."

Many Democratic activists hold the same theory about Hurt's party switch four years ago. They say she was bitterly disappointed when she lost the 1994 primary race for delegate, a crowded race in which she was unable to win the endorsement of the Columbia Democratic Club she had led for two years.

"I just think she thinks she has great opportunities at winning a seat as a Republican," says Del. Frank S. Turner, one of the two Democrats who defeated her in the 1994 primary.

Hurt says she felt no bitterness from the primary loss and denies that her switch had anything to do with political ambitions.

"I'm not a shallow, opportunistic person," Hurt says. "Quite honestly, if I had wanted this council seat, I would have a better shot at it running as a Democrat."

She also points out that many Republican elected officials in Howard County are former Democrats: Schrader, County Executive Charles I. Ecker, Sen. Martin G. Madden, Del. Robert L. Flanagan, Clerk of the Circuit Court Margaret D. Rappaport and others.

"If this is a litmus test for running for office, then we have a lot of people who shouldn't run for office," Hurt says.

'Paid my dues'

Indeed, party insiders believe it's unlikely that Republican voters in District 3 will punish Hurt for her party switch. She started running months before Halpin jumped into the race, and she has the endorsement of Schrader, the incumbent.

Halpin suggests there's a risk Hurt would switch parties again after winning a seat on the council -- which could decide which party controls the council -- but Hurt says she's a Republican to stay.

"I've paid my dues in the Republican Party. I have been a very hard worker. I have been very active in the party," Hurt says. "I don't think I have to prove my Republicanism."

Pub Date: 8/16/98

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