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Democrats organize area club to battle GOP

After the defeat last fall of every Democratic candidate in the county, a group of South Carroll residents decided the time had arrived to establish a stronger Democratic presence in the area.

In the four months since it organized, the South Carroll Democratic Club has grown to 63 members and won commitments from prominent officeholders as guests for meetings.

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"The last election really sparked this," said Nimrod Davis, at 77 a lifelong Democrat and a county resident. "We can't just throw up our hands and say, 'What's the use?' We want to build Democrats up to the point where we make Carroll County a two-party system."

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. is scheduled to attend the club's picnic next month and state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, former governor and mayor of Baltimore, is slated to be the guest speaker at a fund-raiser in September.

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"We can't start beating Republicans here until we get the support of the state party," said Kenneth Holniker, a longtime community activist. "We will be bringing major Democrats here on a regular basis."

All Holniker had to do was ask, said Schaefer. "He is an old friend, and I said I would come to the county for him," the comptroller said.

Curran and Schaefer could be reversing a trend among state Democrats. Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening rarely visited Carroll and frequently tangled with the former all-Republican board of commissioners, particularly on land-use issues.

In the last several months of her gubernatorial campaign, Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend did not stop in the county. Her Republican opponent, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. won 79 percent of the vote in Carroll, his widest margin.

Three well-known Democrats experienced an almost 3-to-1 loss in the county commissioners race. Perry L. Jones Jr., who won a commissioner seat, changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican four months before the primary.

Holniker, an attorney, outspent his opponent by nearly $10,000 but lost his bid for state delegate representing the newly created South Carroll district. Republican Susan W. Krebs won the seat by nearly 4,000 votes.

"Our job is to register Democrats to vote," said Holniker. "That is how to win elections."

As of June 30, South Carroll had 12,414 registered Republicans and 8,678 registered Democrats. The area, the most populous and fastest-growing in the county, is home to more than 20 percent of the county electorate.

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"If you look at areas where Dems have potential, it's in South Carroll," said Thomas McCarron, chairman of the Carroll County Democratic State Central Committee. "We welcome this club, which is probably a bit overdue. It is impressive what they have done in such a short time."

Larry Helminiak, president of the South Carroll Republican Club, a longstanding group with about 70 members, said he expected the new Democratic organization would be greeted with enthusiasm. If the club can put forward candidates who espouse conservative views, they might have more success at the polls, he said. "Richard Dixon never lost an election here, and he was a conservative Democrat," Helminiak said, referring to the four-term delegate and former state treasurer.

Davis recalled a time when Democrats dominated Carroll politics. Holniker's memory does not stretch back that far, he said, but he does recollect a time about 20 years ago when the parties had nearly equal numbers of registered voters.

"I remember hearing about a time when Democrats won elections here, but it was before I started voting in 1975," said Sedonia Martin, a member of the North Carroll Democratic Club for 20 years. "There are Democrats out there, but they don't make their voices known,"

Election officials report the majority of new registrations are Republican, a pattern that began in the early 1990s.

"Our mission is not only to educate voters about Democratic candidates, but also to let them know we are here working on the issues," Martin said.

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The North Carroll Democratic Club is rebuilding, too. "Democrats are still alive in Carroll County, even though people think we are not," said President John Lockard Barnes. "People look to the letter behind your name on the ballot and not to your qualifications. We have to turn that around."

Anita Riley, who becomes the South Carroll club president in September, lost to Holniker in the District 9B Democratic primary. She is uncertain about future tries for office but is adamant that the area needs two parties. "Hopefully, we can make people here aware that we exist," Riley said. "We want to raise money so we can support good Democratic candidates in the future."

Tina DiFranco, the financial secretary, said, "We don't just want candidates. We want to get somebody in next time."

About 40 people organized the club in March, and membership has grown steadily at each monthly meeting. "This club has to tell the story of the Democratic Party," said Holniker. "We can't hide. We have to be visible."

DiFranco, who moved to Eldersburg nine years ago, went to the organizational meeting and immediately joined. The influx of newcomers could benefit the effort, she said. She is planning lunches, dinners and forums to get the word out.

"I always felt in the minority politically and the past election with its landslide victory for Republicans confirmed that," she said. "But, we have great stuff in the works, very enthusiastic people and we will keep going."

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Davis added, "We are not here to yell and scream at what the Republicans are doing. We are here to tell people what we can do and what we will do."


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