Allan Levey, the chairman of the Republican Party in Maryland, finished his prepared speech, reciting a litany of GOP accomplishments and hopes, to a spellbound audience of 125 at the biweekly meeting at the Lonaconing Republican Club.
Then Levey deviated from his script. He looked to his right where state Sen. Edward J. Mason, the Republican minority leader in Annapolis, listened intently. He looked to his left and saw John Bambacus, a young college professor who is aggressively challenging Mason for the Republican nomination in the Allegany/Garrett County district, the only one of the state's 47 legislative districts with a Republican majority.
"I want to say one more thing, emphasize one more thing," Levey said. "And that is that I'm proud to know Ed Mason. Everywhere I go in the state, people tell me what a great job they think Ed is doing. That's all I hear. He's doing a great job for us in Annapolis."
His speech set the scene for the kind of face-to-face confrontation that in most of Maryland is usually associated with Democrats.
When Levey finished, he was charged by an angry Bambacus. "That was a cheap shot, Allan, really. I don't think it's too much to ask neutrality from you."
Levey shook his head. "I told you I was going to support Ed Mason all along. You want to challenge the state Senate's minority leader, you aren't going to get help from me."
"I don't need your help," Bambacus answered. "All I want is neutrality. That's the trouble with this party. It's a good old boy network and all you good old boys stick together."
Levey was angry now. "Don't you tell me that. I've worked like crazy to bring new people to the party."
Mason arrived on the scene. Bambacus turned to him and put out his hand. Mason ignored it.
"You got a problem, John?" Mason asked.
"I'm just telling Allan I don't think it's unreasonable for me to ask him to stay neutral."
Mason laughed. "You're in the big leagues now, this is hardball. There's no rule that says the party chairman has to stay neutral in the primary."
For several minutes the two men argued angrily. Bambacus accused Mason of being afraid to debate him. "I've asked you to debate me 10 times," he said.
"When, name one time," Mason demanded.
"I don't remember," Bambacus said, backing off slightly.
"You are a liar," Mason said. There was just the slightest hint of impending trouble. But friends of both men moved between them and everyone went off to eat limburger cheese sandwiches, which are as much a part of club tradition as the Republican elephant etched into the center of the meeting room floor.
For the rest of the evening the Bambacus group stood in one small knot, the Mason group in another.
Levey had made the 125-mile drive from his Bethesda home last Thursday largely to be with Mason. He had eaten dinner with the senator and Charlie Johnson, the Coney Club president, at Mason's restaurant in Cumberland before driving to the meeting. Much of the dinner talk centered on Bambacus' challenge. Backed by labor, Bambacus is pushing the conservative Mason.
Mason, Bambacus and many other Republicans had made the drive to this tiny town nestled in the Allegheny mountains to attend a meeting of the "Coney Club," as it is called. The club, the social center of the town (pop. 2,200) was founded in 1943 and little about it has changed since then. The low-ceilinged, smoke-filled meeting room was jammed as Levey spoke.
The Mason-Bambacus race is a visceral one for this area, a clash between a traditional conservative whose roots in the area date to the 18th century, and a maverick liberal who moved here from Bethesda 15 years ago. On the radio, Mason has labeled Bambacus "that college professor from Montgomery County." To many in this area, that is not much different from being called a wife beater.
Mason also got a boost when U.S. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias, for whom Bambacus worked in Mathias' 1980 campaign and in the senator's regional office, authorized a letter that, although it did not endorse Mason, expressed support for the work Mason has done.
"I got a letter from Mathias," Mason told Bambacus.
"No you didn't," Bambacus answered.
"I'll send you a copy."
Levey, standing nearby munching on the limburger cheese, shook his head. "I'm afraid there's going to be a lot of dirt thrown before this campaign is through."
At the Coney Club, Republicans fighting with Republicans borders on sacrilege.
Behind the bar, Johnson, the club president, was not pleased about the evening's events. Scrapping, Johnson said, is for Democrats, not Republicans. Johnson, pulling his 6-foot-2, 325-pound body out of his tiny chair, opened the meeting by calling for quiet because "I've got an important announcement to make--a very important announcement. I'm proud, real proud to be the one to tell you this." He paused for dramatic effect. "As of 1:30 this afternoon there were 18,429 registered Republicans in Allegany County and 18,419 registered Democrats.
"We're back on top!"
The club members cheered. They shook hands with each other. There were hugs all around. Here, Republicanism, in the most traditional, conservative sense of the word, lives.
There are 1,369 registered Republicans in town and 268 registered Democrats. "The Democrats don't come out after dark," one club member joked.
Coney, as the club and the town are called, is a throwback. Little has changed in the dusty, dusky streets since the club was founded 39 years ago. It has met every first and third Thursday of the month ever since.
To get inside, one literally has to be a card-carrying Republican and a member of the club.
"In 1969 I was elected chairman of the central committee," said Mason. "I called Coney and said I wanted to come down and speak. They said, 'You a member?' I said I wasn't and they said, 'Well then, you can't come.' "
Mason eventually came up with the $3 it costs to join and got in to speak. When Levey wanted to speak to the club, he had to join too. He did, and became the club's first, and only, Jewish member.
Most of the members are blue-collar, middle-class conservatives. Johnson, 28, works for Cumberland Steel, although on the night of this meeting, the plant was closed for two weeks. In Baltimore, these people might be Democrats, but in Western Maryland, they are as Republican as you can get.
Inside, the Coney Club is a little dingy. The ceiling is low, the rooms are dark. The bar area was once the home of Hall-of-Fame baseball pitcher Lefty Grove. Everyone in the club knows that. On the wall behind the bar hangs a large sign that says, "Positively No Profanity."
On the floor in the middle of the meeting room is the outline of an elephant, the Republican Party symbol. When members stand around in clumps sipping beer and talking, they seem to take pains not to step on the elephant.
Behind the meeting room is a card room and a three-lane bowling alley. The club is a bar-and-grill and a social club. But mostly, it is a place for Republicans to gather and shake their heads about the rest of the state with its 3-to-1 Democratic registration. Only Allegany (as of last Thursday) and Garrett have more registered Republicans than Democrats.
The town is named for George Lonaconing, an Indian who lived and worked here in the 18th century. The nearby creek is named George's. Lonaconing, both town and club, are lily-white.
"Bet you ain't seen no colored folk in here tonight," club historian Roy Winters said to a visitor. "That's a blessing far as I'm concerned."
For Johnson's dramatic announcement, the room was packed with politicians, including former former U.S. senator J. Glenn Beall Jr., whose home is six miles down the road in Frostburg; Mason; Bambacus, who teaches at Frostburg State and a slew of candidates for the House of Delegates, county commissioner, school board and state central committee.
"That's why I like coming up here," Levey said. "You walk into the Coney Club and all around you see Republican officeholders and Republican candidates. That isn't true too many places in this state."
And, on this night, the Coney club had been the location of something else rarely seen in the state: the stage setting for a tough primary fight. Most places, Republicans run unopposed in the primary, if they run at all. Here, the Republican Primary is everything.
Here, in fact, Republican politics is everything.
As Bob Hutcheson, who joined the club when he came home from World War II put it earlier: "At the Coney Club you got to want to talk politics, Republican politics. All that other stuff ain't even worth discussing."