For years, Democratic officialdom in Prince George's County met once a month in the Sheraton-Lanham Hotel at the edge of the Beltway to discuss fundraising, party strategy and its tight-fisted discipline over the approximately 70 legislators who ran for office every four years on the Democratic Party line.
Coffee and danish were served as then-county executive Winfield Kelly and then-state Senate president Steny Hoyer presided over issues such as which deserving Democrat should be pushed for a state post and who should be "purged" from the party slate. A feeling of confidence and power prevailed at this so-called Breakfast Club and all seemed to go well for the party.
Then came the 1978 elections, charges that party democracy was being smothered by "bosses" and some serious electoral losses -- Kelly was defeated in his reelection bid by Republican Larry Hogan and Hoyer's aspirations for the lieutenant governorship were squelched by the unlikely Harry Hughes-Sam Bogley ticket. At the same time, the once solid ranks of elected Democrats eager to tweek the party leadership. The Democratic organization that had been carefully nurtured into a well-oiled machine over the last decade began to lurch into serious disrepair.
Now, two years after the 1978 debacle, with decay having crept into the party structure, Democratic leaders have returned to the scene of the glorious past, the Sheraton-Lanham. Here, during the last few weeks, they have tried, behind closed doors, to reconstruct the old Breakfast Club, hoping that somehow a bit of the old magic will rub off on them if they sit there long enough.
They gather, as in the past, around coffe and freshly squeezed orange juice and turn their attention to the weighty matters government and politics. This time around however, things are different. There is bickering over who will lead the group; there is no party discipline, and the Democrats, ousted from the county executive's seat and from positions of power in Annapolis, have only minor patronage to distribute.
In fact, the party has become so split -- the unaligned Democrats have developed into a cohesive force with their own leaders and longtime allies from the Kelly-Hoyer days have begun growling at each other -- that no one is quite sure who, if anyone, can claim to speak for the Democratic Party.
This growing identity crisis is what has led to the establishmet of the new Breakfast Club, which politicians -- skittish about the old charges of Democratic "machine" politics run by party "bosses" -- have insisted be called the "Coordinating Committee."
Efforts were made several times in the past to reestablish a Democratic leadership group -- private breakfast occurred during the past year at various politicians' homes -- but little ever came of it. This time, however, party members, including state senators, representatives of the County Council, delegates and elected officials in the courthouse, insist things will be different. Political issues are coming up that the Democrats need to take seriously.
The 1982 elections are not so far away and the Democrats need a strong county executive candidate to take on Hogan, if he backs away from running for U.S. senator or governor. A special election to replace Fifth Congressional Rep. Gladys Spellman, who has been in a semiconscious state since suffering cardiac arrest on Halloween, likely to occur sometime this spring or summer, and the Democrats can expect a serious Rebpublican challenge for the seat. In addition, the all-Democratic County Council is now in the process of being redistricted from 11 at-large seats to nine districts seats, a change that will make it easier for a Republican or a nonincumbent to win election.
Despite these weighty issues and the earnestness with which Democratic politicans insist the party will come together again, things have gotten off to a somewhat hesitant start. The Breakfast Club's first meeting last month was dominated by bickering over who had the right to represent whom at future meetings. During last week's affair, the debate over representation continued for a good portion of the meeting before some serious matters -- who should be pushed by Prince George's for state appointments and who should be appointed by the County Council to the council redistricting committee -- were taken up.
In both cases, it is unclear to what extent the group will have any say-To date, Gov. Hughes has shown little interest in listening to Prince George's demands. And already some council members are grumbling that appointments to the council committee should be made by the council and not dictated by a bunch of senators, delegates and others who willingly develop a party-wide "consensus" in council affairs but object when such a decision affects them.
"This thing is just sputtering along right now," said one county politician.
"It remains to be seen whether it will ever run smoothly.For people to come in and compromise, there has to be something -- a party organization -- to compromise with, that'll carry you in the next election. There's no confidence that there'll be such a thing in the near future, so nobody's going to knuckle down and find a consensus that'll hold."