State Sen. Robert R. Neall, a moderate Republican and former Anne Arundel county executive, said yesterday he was switching parties because he no longer felt welcome in the GOP.
His decision further strengthens the Democrats' dominance in the Maryland Senate, where Neall's switch gives the party a 33 to 14 majority. His move is another blow to the state GOP, which is trying to rebuild after widespread losses in last year's elections.
Neall is a popular fixture in the General Assembly, known best for his probing questions on the state budget. He offered few specifics yesterday on why he wanted to leave the party that had been his political home for 28 years.
"While I have from time to time felt uncomfortable and unwelcome in the Republican Party, those feelings have clearly worsened in recent years to the point of leading me to this decision," Neall said in a letter to state Republican Chairman Richard D. Bennett.
Neall served in the House of Delegates for three terms in the 1970s and 1980s. After an unsuccessful bid for Congress, he was elected Anne Arundel county executive in 1990 and served one term. He joined the Senate in 1996 after the death of longtime minority leader John A. Cade and was easily reelected last year.
Traditionally, Maryland's Senate has been a collegial body. Though Democrats have long dominated, the Republican minority has sought to have influence by working with the Democratic leadership rather than by obstructionist tactics. Cade had epitomized that approach, and Neall continued it.
But in the 1998 election, two moderate Republican senators were replaced by conservatives, and the Senate grew more conservative.
"Inasmuch as my role in the Senate is primarily that of a problem solver, affiliation with the majority party will give me a better opportunity to focus on the problems of our state and the needs of the people I represent," Neall said in his letter.
But as a problem solver, Neall is not above tough tactics. He led a filibuster during the General Assembly session this year, enlisting Democrats to fight an increase in the cigarette tax, and was instrumental in lowering the increase from $1 a pack to 30 cents.
Bennett said he was saddened by Neall's move, which comes after the defection to the Democratic Party of New Windsor Mayor Jack A. Jay Gullo Jr. last month. "We want to attract people like Bobby Neall. We don't want to lose people like that," he said. "Having said that, there's no great implications for the Maryland Republican Party."
One of the state's most conservative senators, freshman Alexander X. Mooney (R-Frederick), said he, too, was saddened by Neall's switch. "I think he fits in well with our party," Mooney said. "I feel it's a loss for us as Republicans."
Neall's district, which stretches across the middle of Anne Arundel County, is heavily Republican, and he acknowledged in his letter that "a political consultant would never recommend that I change parties." But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) said he would do all he could to assist Neall. "I'm going to make certain Anne Arundel County is rewarded for his service," Miller said.