An unusual sight greeted visitors at Joe Theismann's Camp Springs restaurant earlier this week. A large group of business-suited men and women, many of them white, well-known local Republicans, lined up to pump the hand of an eager young black.
"A great affair," said one man, elegantly attired in banker's gray. "Thank you for having me; thank you for your enthusiasm."
The $50 fund-raiser for state Senate candidate James E. Whitehead, a 25-year-old black Prince George's Republican who hopes to unseat incumbent Democrat B.W. (Mike) Donovan, was only part of an effort to get him a seat in the General Assembly.
Whitehead's boss, U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), has given him $1,000 from a political action committee Kemp heads. Whitehead has also received $1,000 from the Republican National State Selection Committee, as well as letters of support from several prominent state and national GOP leaders.
In the face of the embarrassing primary defeat of another black Republican, congressional hopeful Perry Smith, Whitehead has begun to benefit from this year's call for a new "openness" in the traditionally closed club of the county's GOP. "He and council candidate Ella Ennis are our best shots this year," said Republican activist Kevin Igoe. "He has a shot, you watch . . . . It's sounds corny but he's, he's inspiring." Says Republican Central Committee chairwoman Barbara Anderson, "People believe in him."
At the same time, according to Democrats, Whitehead has demonstrated a naivete about campaigning that characterizes many Republican candidates, emphasizing philosophies and political ties that are anathema to the 3-to-1 Democratic majority. Moreover, said one Democratic strategist, "He acts like an outsider, like he's not going to win."
His Tuesday fund-raiser, for example, was one of several held outside his legislative district, and many of his guests Tuesday were people who couldn't vote for him. His speakers, Kemp and U.S. Rep. Marjorie Holt (R-Md.), represent policies that many of his district's Democratic voters (30 percent of whom are black) are likely to oppose. Still, Whitehead says, he is going to win. "All I need is 50.1 percent," he said.
The political saga of James E. Whitehead began sometime last year, when he decided he wanted to run for Congress against Democrat Steny Hoyer. Unfortunately for him, so did the Rev. Perry Smith, a newly converted Republican, head of a large Baptist church and a civic leader of long standing. Many GOP leaders supported Smith. But despite well-publicized invitations to dine with the president and other Republican heavyweights, Smith was trounced two to one in the Republican primary by little-known graduate student William Guthrie. Whitehead decided to run for the state Senate.
Whitehead, a computer programmer, hopes to attract Democrats with his homespun version of conservative philosophies.
"I told one friend of mine that I would teach him to work the computer if he learned how to type, so he could get a job on the Hill," said Whitehead, launching into a typical story. "And you know what he did? He went to typing school at night for six weeks, so I taught him programming . It just goes to prove that by offering some type of incentive, and incentive means money, people will amaze you. If you give people a chance they can move up."
Whitehead, unopposed in the primary, says he has raised close to $30,000. But his campaign finance reports show him raising only $4,202, with another $3,100 expected from Tuesday's affair -- figures confirmed by Whitehead's spokesman Tom Healy. Donovan raised $10,040, and has a few thousand left over, despite having competed against four primary challengers.