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  • Maryland Elections '98

  •   Campaign Divides GOP in Howard

    By Scott Wilson
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, April 16, 1998; Page M01

    Margaret Rappaport is Howard County's elected clerk of the Circuit Court, a relatively anonymous administrative post responsible for keeping the justice system on schedule. But the Republican has turned the job into a seat of political power, and become a polarizing figure within her own party as it enters an election season hoping to hang onto the historic gains it has achieved this decade.

    Rappaport denies it, but some party activists say she has been organizing what looks suspiciously like "Republicans for Robey," a group of party apostates that would support Democratic county executive candidate James N. Robey in the event that their GOP favorite, Charles C. Feaga (R-West County), loses the party primary in the county executive's race.

    In response, the Howard Republican Central Committee is demanding that all 39 GOP candidates and central committee members sign a "unity pledge," a promise to support the Republican primary victors or face virtual ostracism. But the tactic is threatening to blow the party apart as Rappaport and several other leading Republicans refuse to sign the pledge.

    "It's premature and it's not needed," said County Executive Charles I. Ecker (R), a gubernatorial candidate. "It's a slap [to] everybody's face to think we won't support the GOP nominee."

    The move comes as Republicans plot how to retain their hold on the county executive's post and three seats on the council as four GOP incumbents step down. The controversy also could doom the political prospects of Paul H. Rappaport, Margaret's husband, who is hoping to be tapped again by GOP gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey to run for lieutenant governor. Said one Republican operative, "Ellen was made aware of it. And she was not happy."

    The current dispute traces its roots to this year's county executive's race, and Margaret Rappaport's dissatisfaction with one of the GOP contenders, first-term Council member Dennis R. Schrader. Two years ago, Schrader supported a ticket in a controversial judge's race that Rappaport opposed, and he angered many Republicans when he suggested that failure to support the two incumbent Circuit Court judges, one of whom was African American, amounted to racism.

    A former Democrat, Rappaport has threatened to run her own Republican candidates, including family members, against GOP politicians who cross her, and she is publicly backing Feaga in the Sept. 15 primary for the party nomination. Some activists fear that Rappaport -- who won more votes than any other countywide candidate in 1994 -- is warming to Democrat Robey if Schrader prevails, speculation that grew more intense after she sat with the Democrat at a Feaga campaign event.

    Last week, the GOP Central Committee unanimously endorsed the "unity pledge" idea as a way to maintain party order. A failure to sign the pledge by this Sunday will mean no recognition on party mailers. No introductions at Lincoln Day dinners and other party events. No party help of any kind.

    "I just don't get it," Rappaport said. "I shouldn't have to sign a piece of paper to show I'm a good Republican."

    To the potential embarrassment of the central committee, Feaga himself says he "probably won't sign it because it questions my integrity." That could mean post-primary party mailers that do not mention the candidate heading the local ticket.

    "It took everybody by surprise," said Feaga, who pointed out that a Republican candidate needs Democratic support to win a countywide race in Howard. "We're trying to figure it out where it started. I'm not comfortable with it at this point, and there are probably eight or 10 of us who feel that way."

    Others who may refuse to sign the pledge include: Sheriff Michael A. Chiuchiolo, who is not running for reelection; Chuck Cave, who is running for sheriff; and Pat Patterson, candidate for Judge of the Orphan's Court. Most are part of the Court House crowd in Howard that is the center of Rappaport's power.

    "First of all, I'm 63 years old, and I don't like being treated like a baby," said Patterson, an Ellicott City restaurant owner. "I took great exception to what Dennis said [during the judge's race] two years ago. If Charlie Feaga loses, I will be supporting 'Republicans for Robey.' "

    Louis Pope, the GOP central committee's chairman, dismisses the flap as growing pains in a party that, while still outnumbered by Democrats in terms of registered voters, holds the county's most powerful elected offices. As a result, the party has more contested primaries this year than any in history, which Pope says inevitably means internal friction.

    "We wanted to make sure that we are all on the same team, post-primary," Pope said of the pledge. "We wanted to lay the groundwork this spring because the window [between the primary and general elections] is very small."

    Pope said Rappaport has assured him she will not endorse Robey for county executive. He does admit that she and her husband may not motivate supporters to help a Schrader candidacy should Feaga lose. For his part, Robey is careful on the subject.

    "I think a lot of people have jumped to conclusions," said Robey, a former Howard police chief who was deputy to Paul Rappaport when he ran the department. "She has not said anything to me about supporting me or endorsing me."

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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