Some thirty Montgomery County Democrats were feted with crabcakes and ham aboard the state yacht last Friday night while Acting Gov. Blair Lee III asked for their help in solving a nettlesome problem.
How, he asked, could he explain to politicians around the state why his own people, the Montgomery County Democratic leadership, has yet to endorse him in the gubernatorial race?
The answer, he said, was for them to endorse him, the county's native son, and save him from further embarrassment. "Blair said he was tired of explaining that Montgomery County is different . . . that people were asking why he didn't have an endorsement out of Montgomery," said Del. Lucille B. Maurer, one of the partygoers.
As in most matters put before the Montgomery Democrats, Lee's endorsement request exacerbated old divisions rather than producing a resolution. When the group broke up at 11 p.m., it was agreed that the matter of a gubernatorial endorsement would be brought up at a steering committee meeting scheduled for last night.
Over the weekend, Montgomery Democrats who were excluded from the affair on the yacht (only Lee supporters were invited) cried sabotage. Rules and regulations were studied. The fragile balance of the county party organization was declared in danger of collapsing.
At issue is the convention held in June by Montgomery Democrats, an organization of elected officials and other party regulars. The 300 Democrats at that convention selected a slate of county-wide candidates and decided against endorsing anyone in the gubernatorial race. To endorse Lee, the rules of the game would have to be changed.
A strong supporter of Lee said that could cause havoc with the rules minded Montgomery County group. "It's a question of timing," said Del. Joseph E. Owens. "Lee's never asked before for an endorsement and I don't know whether we can do anything about it now . . . The literature has been printed, it's been made up and I don't see how that can be changed."
It is is also a question of the county's self-image and Lee's fortune at being a favorite son of a county that feels it own local politics are a very separate matter from Maryland state politics. Most elected county officials prefer to stay neutral and independent, concentrating on their own backyards.
"Our original position is we're not going to get involved in other races," said Del. Helen L. Koss, another guest at Lee's party. "We have a tough race and this could force other gubernatorial candidates to choose among us. It would create problems and I'm not interested in problems."
Such concerns do not help Lee when he is asked how it is that the Prince George's County Democrats and Baltimore City Democratic clubs can endorse his candidacy while his home county holds back. "Our problem is explaining why Montgomery County is different," said Blair Lee IV, campaign manager for his father.
Since Lee is basing his campaign in part on public support from state officials, the "problem of Montgomery County" has grown. "Other candidates are trying to make this an embarrassment for us, so all we're seeking is a show, of strength, some accomodation," said the younger Lee.
The Montgomery Democreats who support gubernatorial candidate Theodore G. Venetoulis, the Baltimore County executive, are threatening to file a lawsuit over efforts to get an endorsement of Lee from Montgomery County Democrats. Stan Gildenhorn, Venetoulis' Montgomery County coordinator, said yesterday he would seek an injunction to block any efforts that be believe violate the convention rules.
"Frankly, we feel knifed in the back," said Guildenhorn. "It's awfully late to apply gubernatorial pressure on the 'Maryland Lady' [the state yacht] to change rules we've played by all these months."
Joseph Gebhardt, a Bethesda candidate for the State Senate said he told Lee at the boat party that a move for an endorsement from Montgomery Democrats may not work to Lee's benefit. "I told Governor Lee that the governor's race in Bethesda is still undecided and that I didn't known how a poll or questionnaire would come out," Gebhardt said.
Other county officials said that that was not the problem and that Lee has the support of elected officials. "It is the time it would take," said State Sen. L. Lawrence Wiser. "I would not put an endorsement in the context of people for or against Blair. It's whether we wouldn't be better off avoiding the question now."