Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Wayne L. Rogers says he expects to step down in January, touching off a fight for the party's leadership in the wake of its historic loss of the governorship this month.
A disparate band of Democrats is lining up to succeed him. The most public is lobbyist and former congressional candidate Terry Lierman, who has been quietly contacting central committee members. But Democratic sources say others are being recruited, including Montgomery County Council member Isiah Leggett and Dan Clements, a lawyer who heads the board of Planned Parenthood of Maryland.
Leggett, who chaired the party's statewide campaign, said he's considering the job. Clements, who made a run for it four years ago, declined to comment.
One Democratic source said Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend also is interested in the post, but party leaders have denied it. Townsend was vacationing in Florida last week. Her chief of staff, Alan H. Fleischmann, did not return calls to their State House office.
Typically, the governor or governor-elect chooses the state chairman, who takes a back seat to the governor in speaking for the party. But with Townsend's loss to Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Democrats are left without a standard bearer in the governor's mansion for the first time in three decades. That makes the next step a little murky.
"Obviously, the anticipation was that we would have the governor," Rogers said last week in an interview. "The question for the party leaders is to sit and figure out what we do next."
Democratic officials said the party expects to meet in January, just before the General Assembly convenes. At that meeting, the Democrats' top elected officials -- including U.S. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, six congressmen, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and the new speaker of the House -- are likely to choose a chairman by consensus, Democratic officials said.
That choice could be influenced by Democrats angling to challenge Ehrlich in 2006. For example, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan or Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley could attempt to persuade party leaders to let them handpick the next chairman.
The choice also could be affected by the role Democrats want the next chairman to play. Rogers, an Annapolis businessman, has been a behind-the-scenes presence, more notable for raising money than for setting party policy.
But with Republicans in control of state government, Democrats may want a chairman who will take on a more public role, taking shots at Ehrlich when he makes mistakes and relieving legislative leaders who have to work with new governor of that responsibility.
Rogers said he is pleased with his performance as party chairman, despite Townsend's loss.
"No elected official has ever given me any indication that they're anything other than happy with where the party went," Rogers said.
Under his leadership, Rogers said the party "won Maryland for [presidential candidate Al] Gore 57 to 40 percent, the largest margin of victory in the country" two years ago. In 2001, Rogers said, Democrats won seven of eight mayoral campaigns.
And this month the party picked up two congressional seats at a time when Republicans were dominating congressional races elsewhere. Although Democrats lost a seat in the state Senate, they maintained an overwhelming majority in both chambers in Annapolis.
"We did lose Kathleen, and that's not something we're happy about," Rogers said. "But I don't think that race is a rejection of the Democratic Party per se."
No one, Rogers said, "has laid the problem of that race on the feet of the Democratic Party."
Ehrlich Names GOP Chief
While the election left Democrats at a loss to name their next leader, Ehrlich lost no time in making his selection. He announced last week that Montgomery County businessman John Kane will take the reins of the GOP, replacing Michael S. Steele, who is leaving to become the state's first black lieutenant governor.
Kane had considered running for governor himself until Ehrlich threw his hat into the ring in the spring.
"I look forward to working with many of you over the next four years as we strengthen the Republican Party and usher in a new era of success for a two-party system in Maryland," Kane wrote supporters in an e-mail.
"With the presidential election in just 23 months, along with a host of important state elections, we will have our work cut out for us. However, we believe Marylanders want a strong two-party system that affords voters a choice."