Less than a year after being elected chairman of the Anne Arundel County Republican Central Committee, Michael Collins is facing a mutiny. The behind-the-scenes campaign is playing out publicly, however, through a steady chorus of statements and leaked memos posted in the blogosphere.
Among those leading the charge is Brian Griffiths, a 27-year-old who lost a bid for a Central Committee seat last fall and has been blogging for more than two years at brian griffiths.com. He obtained and posted a letter sent by the Central Committee's vice chairman asking Collins to step down, and later displayed Collins' rebuttal. And he challenged key players to explain themselves on his site, offering to post their responses unedited.
"Something just didn't smell right to me," Griffiths said. "... I wanted to know, 'Why is this happening?' And it's kinda snowballed from there."
The constant discussion among conservative commentators -- including former candidates and other operatives -- allowed interested political observers to become a fly on the wall in what has become a nasty struggle over leadership of a body of elected activists whose work typically involves organizing events, fundraising and identifying candidates.
The committee experienced a shake-up in last fall's election, with eight of 13 positions changing hands. Collins, who is serving his second term on the committee, apparently fell out of favor with newer members who want to move the local GOP in a different direction. The debate comes at a critical time, when the county Democratic voters' majority is narrowing and the state Republican Party is bickering over whether to take sides in a contested primary for Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest's seat in Congress.
Collins did not want to comment on the leadership coup for this article. But he did acknowledge his reaction after he was told about Griffiths' site and saw how extensively the situation had been chronicled: "Whoa."
For Griffiths, Collins' potential ouster is less troubling than the manner in which committee members have gone about it.
"The Central Committee members are fiddling with this other [leadership] issue, and they're not seeing the forest [for] the trees," he said.
The posts started two weeks ago, when Griffiths wrote that "rumors are flying that a major leadership battle is about to begin." His ensuing coverage helped him, at least momentarily, be considered one of the most influential bloggers in Maryland, a distinction largely determined by Web traffic and links. He also penned a summary of the situation that was posted on a nationally recognized conservative Web site.
On Aug. 6, Erik Robey, a central committee member and assistant chief administrative officer for Anne Arundel, had attempted to set up an informal meeting to discuss concerns over Collins' leadership, according to e-mails obtained by The Sun. Fellow member Debbie Belcher responded by calling the meeting "pointless."
"A decision has been made by at least two-thirds majority and we need to move forward," Belcher wrote. "Its [sic] best for the Committee and Party that this be done quickly, efficiently and without undue attention. Let us not make it personal by trying to rehash the issues."
The e-mail concluded: "P.S. This is not for distribution."
Belcher said in an interview that she was disappointed that her e-mail was made public and said some people were taking it out of context. "I think some of these folks that are interested are interested for the gossip angle of it, and that's why I choose to be silent on the specifics," she said.
Robey said he wasn't surprised to see subsequent e-mails appear on the Web. "I'm always careful in what I actually put in e-mail or writing. What 20 or 30 years ago might have been water cooler talk has emerged through technology to a level where the actual documents can end up out there for everyone to see," he said.
In the days after the spat became public, several political observers took to the blogs to post their own thoughts. Former House of Delegates candidate James Braswell, at his site, jcbraswell.blogspot.com, accused the Central Committee of failing to look out for the average Republican. In e-mails obtained by Griffiths and other bloggers, longtime GOP activist Joyce Thompson called for teamwork while Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr. said Collins displayed poor leadership skills.
"I will admit that I will not be sorry to see Mr. Collins removed," Dwyer, a conservative Republican from Glen Burnie, wrote in an e-mail. "...My personal opinion is that Mr. Collins is not in concert with the values or beliefs of former president Ronald Reagan."
And when the committee's vice president, Jerry Walker, officially called for Collins' resignation last weekend, Griffiths posted the text of the letter, followed by Collins' response.
"I realize that the organizers of this plot thought it would just be an easy game of intimidation in the dog days of summer, when nobody was watching," Collins wrote in response to the letter. "I think the extortion was two-way: to try to intimidate me with a threat of public embarrassment, and by forcing members to sign a letter to keep them from using their own judgment when the facts came out. ... I think that shows a pretty shallow level of respect for our members."
It all sets up a showdown at the Central Committee's next meeting Sept. 5. Collins has said he will not step down unless he is ousted by a formal vote. His detractors claim to have more than enough votes to make it official when the time comes.
Griffiths, meanwhile, says he plans to keep a close eye on the developments. Late last week, he was contacted by a Central Committee staff member. The reason? One member wanted him to write something "nice" about the group, he said.
"It's very important to party members not only who is representing leadership but how they ... are acting in carrying out those duties," Griffiths said.