POW guest draws 100 devoted McCain supporters to GOP fundraiser

The Baltimore Sun

Most political observers see Barack Obama taking Maryland over John McCain, but that doesn't mean the GOP isn't at work to boost its candidate.

The Howard County Republican Party-sponsored fundraiser in Ellicott City recently featured an address by Everett Alvarez Jr., who spent more than eight years as a POW in North Vietnam, part of it with McCain.

About 100 people turned out at the event at the home of Peter and Bess Vrettakos in the Preserve development, which backs to Doughoregan Manor. Peter Vrettakos, 54, is retired, having sold his Atlantic Industrial scaffolding firm in May, he said. The eastern Baltimore County native began as a laborer and started his own business in 1980.

Joan Becker, the county GOP chairwoman, said the local party must raise funds for McCain-Palin signs and other campaign material in the county, adding that the event also helps build local party strength.

Becker warmed up the crowd by talking about the energy Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has injected into the campaign.

"Since the convention, the phones have been ringing off the hook," Becker said. "[Palin's] created an energy we didn't have before."

She also sounded a warning about what an Obama victory would mean for the business community.

"Barack Obama is leading us in the wrong direction," Becker said.

Despite Obama's pledge to raise taxes only on those earning high incomes, Becker said she believes he will seek general tax increases, and called the idea of an Obama victory "scary."

Alvarez is a former Navy pilot shot down by the North Vietnamese in August 1964 after the Gulf of Tonkin incidents. He was held prisoner until 1973 and was released along with McCain.

"I know what [McCain] can do," said Alvarez, a native Californian who lives in Rockville. "He's not a scripted person. He's a real person."

Alvarez noted that Republicans suspended their convention's first day of activities because of Hurricane Gustav, and that McCain returned to Washington to help work on the Wall Street bailout package.

"I've seen this man develop over the years," he said, recounting how McCain had a chance for earlier release by the North Vietnamese but refused to leave before other prisoners were set free.

"It was important to him to be committed to the interest of the group first," Alvarez said.

Alvarez told of spending time with Palin's family at the Republican convention.

"They're down-to-earth, regular folks - just like the rest of us," he said.

The event drew people such as Lloyd Thacker, 72, who is retired after a career as owner of several Exxon gas stations in Columbia; Elaine Northrup, a prominent county real estate agent; and Republican Del. Gail H. Bates.

Thacker, who said he is teaching personal finance to students in county high schools, confessed he was an early Mitt Romney backer. But he said he is backing McCain because he is willing to work with Democrats to make progress. Thacker's main interest, though is keeping taxes low, which he said would help the national economy.

Some attendees had trouble blending traditional GOP values of thrift, low taxes and smaller government with the idea of President Bush proposing a $700 billion taxpayer bailout of Wall Street on top of huge deficits.

"Honestly, I don't know what to make of it," said former Del. Donald E. Murphy, an early McCain backer who headed Maryland's delegation to the GOP convention.

Michael McPherson, Democratic Party chairman in the county, said the Republicans concerns are misplaced.

"If the only things they have to worry about are higher taxes, they are better off than most of us," he said.

Key Senate influence

Howard County may be small, but its clout in Annapolis is growing because Howard now boasts both the majority and minority leaders of the state Senate.

There is also a historic political link between Democrat Edward J. Kasemeyer, majority leader of the 47-member Senate, and Republican State Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, who recently took over as leader of the 14-member minority.

Kasemeyer lives in Columbia and represents parts of southwestern Baltimore County. Kittleman lives in West Friendship and also represents southern Carroll County.

Kittleman knows his new role very well, he said, having grown up hearing his father, Robert, describe his struggles as House minority leader in a legislature dominated by Democrats. The elder Kittleman was a delegate from Howard for two decades until 2002, when he became a state senator. After Robert Kittleman's death two years later, his son was appointed to the seat and won election in 2006.

"The minority party had a strong presence and an important presence presenting the opposing view," Kittleman said. The job of the minority party is to "keep everybody honest" by expressing different opinions.

"I have great respect for Senator Kasemeyer," Kittleman said. "He and my father were elected at the same time, 1982, and I've known him for a long time."

Kasemeyer noted that on some issues, Republican votes can be crucial when Democrats are divided.

"There's a whole array of fairly liberal to conservative Democrats," Kasemeyer said. "It's nice if the [Senate] president can have some moderate Republicans who are able to support the president's agenda."

Kasemeyer also praised Kittleman for other qualities.

"He does his homework and is very knowledgeable," Kasemeyer said. "The key is to reach a point where you find consensus wherever possible. You want a good line of communication."

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