For several months, the Carroll County Republican Club met inconspicuously at a Woodbine residence, while two of its officers faced campaign finance charges.
The political club's lawyers had advised keeping a low-profile and limiting interaction with the media while the case was pending.
But the club embarked on a significant change of course last week. With the charges thrown out earlier this summer, the club gathered publicly for the first time, undertaking an effort to expand membership and generate support for conservative Republican causes in Carroll and across Maryland.
"It was a distraction from building the club up, but we knew in our hearts we had done nothing wrong," club president Scott Hollenbeck said of the charges, which were dropped in June.
Adopting the name of an established political organization that folded three years ago, the new Carroll County Republican Club formed one month before last September's contentious county commissioner primary election. A series of ads attacking the incumbent commissioners and endorsing a conservative slate of GOP candidates indicated that the club intended to be a presence on the county political scene.
But the state prosecutor's office investigated the ads and charged treasurer Suzanne Primoff, 57, and Hollenbeck, 44, of Westminster, with illegal expenditure of campaign funds because the group was not registered with the state and did not file financial disclosure reports.
Primoff and Hollenbeck are focused on raising their group's stature in a county that has several other Republican clubs and where slightly more than half of the 102,686 registered voters are Republicans. Judge Vincent J. Femia acquitted the pair on all charges in Carroll County Circuit Court, saying that state law governing political clubs is "very, very ambiguous."
With no county elections on the horizon, the club is focusing on helping elect conservative candidates throughout Maryland. At last week's meeting, Hollenbeck made a pitch for state Sen. Andrew Harris in his bid to defeat incumbent U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a District 1 Republican, in the Congressional primary in February. Club members said they are disappointed with Gilchrest, a pro-environment, pro-abortion rights moderate Republican.
"If we can get a conservative in that seat, it will send a message all the way from here to San Francisco," Hollenbeck said of his support for Harris.
In the gathering at Ledo Pizza in Sykesville on Thursday night, members of the club emphasized key positions, such as tax cuts and restrictions on illegal immigration. Guest speaker state Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, a Republican who represents Anne Arundel County, briefed club members on issues expected to be at the forefront in Annapolis. Club members voiced support for the failed bill to make English the state's official language and opposition to granting in-state tuition to illegal immigrants.
Ashley Barbera, an Eldersburg native who chairs the Maryland Federation of College Republicans, also addressed the club and solicited donations. The state's 17 College Republican chapters struggle to get their message out in Democratic-leaning university environments, said Barbera, a student at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
"College republicans are ultimately on the front lines ... fighting the liberals on their campuses and professors who may attack them for their beliefs," Barbera said.
The club voted to award Barbera's organization a $100 check for its efforts.
The Carroll County Republican Central Committee has forged ties with the club as it regains its footing. C. David Jones, the committee vice chairman, is an active member. Joseph M. Getty, who was a policy director for former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., also attended Thursday's meeting.
Though central committee member Donald C. Hoffman has not officially joined, he went to the event.
"You can never be in too many clubs," Hoffman said. "What we need to be doing is growing the party."
The club is not trying to distinguish itself from the other local GOP groups, said Ed Primoff, club member and husband of the treasurer.
"We're just like any other club: We support the ideologies that we believe in," Primoff said. "Standard, conservative principles."