Maryland Republicans, buoyed by GOP victories in nearby states, elected a spunky, 73-year-old activist and politician Saturday as the new chairwoman. She pledged to reunite the fractious state party organization and capitalize on what many see as a shifting national tide.
More than 200 delegates to the party's fall convention in Bowie voted overwhelmingly to install Audrey E. Scott, whose resume includes stints as mayor of Bowie, member of the Prince George's County Council, and Cabinet secretary under former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
"It's lonely being from the bluest of the blue states, and that needs to stop in 2010. We are committed to that," said Ehrlich, who has not yet said if he'll challenge Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat he lost to in 2006. "The stakes are big-time in 2010."
The excitement and accord at the convention was a stark contrast to months of infighting that culminated with the resignation of state chairman James Pelura, who was criticized by state lawmakers as the party suffered financially.
Party leaders said they are united by the chance to make gains next year, citing voter unease about the economy and doubts about Democrats. Many pointed to New Jersey and Virginia, where Republicans prevailed in recent gubernatorial elections.
But the GOP must contend with some disadvantages in Maryland. Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1 in voter registration, and the Democratic State Central Committee reported nearly $600,000 in cash on hand in January, the latest report.
By contrast, the Republican State Central Committee told the convention that it had $5,613 in a checking account as of Friday, a $20,000 line of credit and tens of thousands of dollars of debt. The GOP committee also must repay $75,000 to former Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's state account. Elections officials found a transfer from Steele, now national GOP chairman, to be improper.
The only other candidate was Daniel "the Whig Man" Vovak, who often wears a white wig, though not on Saturday. Only a handful of delegates voted for him; most county delegations voted unanimously for Scott.
In what some called another sign of party unity, the convention overwhelmingly approved a change in the party's system for apportioning delegate votes among counties, an issue that has been controversial for years. Under a compromise, a set number of delegate votes were doled out to each county, plus bonus delegate strength based on how many voters in that county backed 2008 Republican nominee John McCain.
In an interview, Scott said she intends to enunciate a clear Republican philosophy of smaller government, lower taxes and individual responsibility. She also said she would leave policymaking to elected officials, a nod to calming relations with lawmakers who regarded Pelura as a meddler.
Scott said she was drawn to politics after working to persuade officials to build the Bowie Health Center in the early 1970s. Realizing she had a political base, she ran for a seat in the House of Delegates and lost, but won a seat on the City Council of Bowie and later became its first female mayor.
In all, Scott has run for office 10 times and won six elections. In a campaign that gained national attention in 1981, she ran against Steny Hoyer for an open U.S. House seat, and lost by 7,000 votes. Soon, the Reagan administration offered her a job in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where she worked for more than 10 years. She was Ehrlich's secretary of planning.