Political leverage isn't the only thing the Eastport Democratic Club doesn't have these days: It doesn't have any black or female members. But when an estranged member who objects to that policy recently became mayor of Annapolis, the club found it could no longer function in quiet obscurity.
The mayor, Dennis Callahan, said that after he found out at his first club meeting three years ago that no blacks or women were admitted, he moved that the policy be changed.
His motion was soundly defeated, and one club member angrily demanded that he resign. Callahan said he refused, but vowed never to set foot in the two-story establishment on State Street again.
Since his election, however, he has embarked on a small campaign of disparaging the club when he is invited to speak in public.
Calling club members "dinosaurs," the mayor describes the club as "an embarrassment to the Democratic Party and the city of Annapolis, the county of Anne Arundel and the state of Maryland.
"It's an archaic concept," he said recently. "It was acceptable in 1931, but this is 1986."
Party officials say they know of no other Democratic clubs around that state that refuse to admit black or female members.
According to several people familiar with the Eastport organization, it once had more than 200 members but now has closer to 100. Although the club was one of the most politically influential party organizations in Anne Arundel County many years ago, set up to raise money for candidates and discuss politics, it is now politically impotent, used mainly as a place to drink and little else, state party officials said. Less than two dozen people attend its Friday night meetings, they said.
Club members say around half the members actually live in Eastport, a peninsula in the southern part of Annapolis whose residents tend to consider themselves independent from the city on the other side of Spa Creek. Once a neighborhood of small frame houses, Eastport is now fringed with condominiums, but newcomers have not joined the club in any number.
The state Democratic Party Central Committee and the Annapolis Democratic Party Central Committee, whose chairman is an Eastport club member, have also vowed to fight the club policy, but say there is little they can do except talk tough, because the club has no official ties with the party organization.
Eastport Democratic Club officials have remained silent on the subject of opening up the organization. Club President George Lucas has refused to discuss the club's policy or the controversy the policy has caused.
"The club is a joke, but its worse than that," said Brad Davidson, an Annapolis City Council member. "It's a very serious bad joke." Davidson said he once was a member, attended one fish fry and subsequently allowed his membership to lapse. He said he has seen no signs of any political activity emanating from the club.
"If it was truly a democratic club, it would be a wonderful asset to the city," he said.
Annapolis City Council member Carl Snowden, a black Democrat who says Callahan should resign, has introduced a bill in the City Council that would take liquor licenses away from clubs that discriminate. Calling liquor "the life blood" of the Eastport Democratic Club, he said changing the licensing regulations would give the institution the choice of admitting women and minority group men or closing down completely.
But with the right of private clubs to discriminate apparently established in state law -- as long as they don't use public money -- some Annapolis Democratic officials fear the issue would get bogged down in court cases, especially because wealthier and more influential local clubs such as the Elks and the Annapolis Yacht Club could also be affected.
Club member Richard Yaniga, chairman of the Annapolis Democratic Party Central Committee, said he worries that recent demands that the club change its ways will backfire, and make club members more stubborn than ever.
"It's getting to be a pride thing," he said. "The feeling in the club is that change is going to happen, but it's going to be change at their pace. They aren't going to be dictated to by some glory-seeking politicians."
The current controversy "is going to make it harder to get it changed," Yaniga said. "These are good old Eastporters. The average age is probably 55 to 60 years old. They call themselves 'Hell Pointers' and take pride in the fact that they are ornery. This has been their club, and they aren't going to lose it."
Club members are aging, membership is declining and income is slumping, he said. Members realize that, in the end, they will have to admit blacks and women if the club is to survive, he said, but it will probably take at least two or three years before they take the plunge.
But party officials and others say the club is worth salvaging, mainly because it is one of the few Democratic clubs with its own building, two bars, a kitchen, a parking lot and a view of Back Creek -- as well as a paid-up mortgage.
"They have no political clout," Callahan said. "The problem is, they own the building. It it were a legitimate Democratic club, it would be great."