Whenever he is asked to lecture his Republican colleagues on the art of politics, Lawrence Hogan, the former congressman from Prince George's County, tells the parade story.
It is about a volunteer firemen's parade in the summer of 1974, a few months before the county election. Hogan and all the other Republican candidates were there, matchung the Democrats wave for wave, handshake for handshake. In the middle of the procession was a float that showed two children fleeing a burning house. The legend read:"A matchbook in the hand of a child is like a loaded shotgun."
Behind the float was a large automobile carrying a Republican candidate. He was leaning out the window, tossing souvenirs with his name on tnem to hundreds of children along the parade route.
The souvenirs were matchbooks.
Although Hogan says there is a lesson for all politicians at all times, the story seems singularly apt for the Republican politicians of Prince George's County. Forthe Past three decades, they hve as out of place as the fellow throwing matchbooks at a firemen's parade.
Not since the 1950 election have the county Rebuplican sent a delegate or state senator to Annapolis. For 22 of the ensuing 28 years, every elected office in Prince George's County - from county executive to register of wills - has been held by a Democrat. This one-part string was broken in 1968, when Hogan won the 5th District seat in Congress, but resumed in 1974 after u incumbent Republican County Executive William Gullett was defeated.
Today, as they prepare for the 1978 political campaign, the Prince George's Republicans know at least that their standard cannot drop any lower. They also know that there is the ring of truth to the lament of one county Republican who half-heartedly compared his organization to the city of Newark. "Wherever the Republican Party is going," said this fellow "Prince George's will get there first."
The story of the Republican Party in Prince George's actually is not one of decline, but of a failure to rise. For the first half of this century, and earlier, there was nothing unusual about this. Prince George's was a sleepy southern county with the politics of most jurisdictions south of the Mason-Dixon line - Democratic.
Over these last 30 years the character of the county changed. It became what political scientists like to call "a microcosm of American," with a large suburban middle class, a growing black population, and a constant influx of new residents from all over the country. The county confronted all of the major issues of modern America, from housing integration to school busing to development. Through it all, the one party tradition remained as strong, if not stronger than ever.
Some county Republicans former GOP chairman Robert Ennis among them, say a good share of the blame rests with the national Republican party."The party had always been nationally oriented," Ennis said. "There was no interest in controlling the county courthouses and state legislatures. When the opportunities came to develop strong local parties, the money, interest and party support was not there."
Other county Republicans say that the blame rests with themselves, that every time the opportunity to develop a strong constituency arose they sputtered and fought and did not know where to start.
"I'm not a cockeyed optimist," GOP central committe chairman Melissa Martin said recently. "Nobody in my position would be. But I do have a feeling that we'll make progress this year. When you're sitting here losing 53 to o, picking up one seat, anywhere, would be progress."
Martin began her effort to pick up that "one seat, anywhere" the day after the November election in 1976. From her home office in Bowie, she worked the telephone all day, calling every active Republican she knew - and some inactive ones - to drum up interest for this year's campaign.
"There was often a dumbfounded silence on the other end of the line," Martin recalled. "A lot of people probably though I was crazy to talk politics at a time like that."
The reaction did not really surprise Martin. It merely presented in clear terms the chicken-or-egg question that any political organization with a long record of failure faces. Which comes first, activism or success, money or success, strong candidates or success?
Richard Otto, an insurance agent from College Park, has the assignment of trying to recruit Republican candidates for the 1978 election. In 1974, the county GOP could find only 19 candidates to run for the 32 Maryland General Assembly seats. This year, according to Otto, the search has gone no better.
"Our efforts have been somewhat futile, to tell the truth," he said. "We've found a few people, but no more than 10 or 15. It's difficult to convince people to run when they're looking at a losing proposition from the start.
"The party is virtually dead, and we have no one to blame but ourselves. When I complain about the lack of a two-party system in the county to my Democratic friends, they say, 'Look, it's your own fault.' And they're right. But where do we start? Do you do it from the grassroots, get the registration built up (the Democrats currently hold a 152,790 to 51,445 edge in registered voters) or do you look for a glamor candidate to build around? Right now I'd guess that we desperately need that glamor candidate."
Several leaders of the Prince George's Republican Party were asked recently to name potential county executive candidates who could be considered glamorous. The list became top-heavy with people who already have stated publicly that they have no plans to run for any office this year - Hogan, Gullett, former councilman John Burcham, businessmen Raymond La Placa and Gerard Holcomb and chairman Marint. The name Martin Aragona appeared infrequently.
Matin Aragona, 41, Broklyn-born and Brooklyn-accented, is living proof of the truism that if a political organization has two or more people in it, it will have two or more factions. In the 1960s and early '70s the factionalism in the Prince George's Republican Party featured Hogan, the conservative party loyalist, and Gullett, a moderate whose strength was not dependant on the party organization.
Hogan and Gullett have reconciled most of their differences since their fall from power and since the emergence of chairman Martin, who was supported for the leadership post by both men. The factions of today, less divisive but just as apparent as the earlier ones, feature Aragona and the Prince George's Republican Club versus Martin and the central committee.
Aragona, a developer from Oxon Hill, last week became the first announced Republican candidate for county executive. He begins his effort to unseat incumbent Democrat Winfield Kelly with two things that the county Republicans have so little of these days - money and energetic workers.
The money comes from Aragona's own pocket, and already is being spent on polls and television advertising put together by a Baltimore public relations firm. The energetic workers come from within the ranks of the Republican Club and the Crescent City Jaycees, a group that several years ago honored him with the Outstanding Young Man of the Year award, choosing him over Peter O'Malley, who' now is the chief political stratetist for the county Democrats.
Aragona also begins his race with many party leaders saying unkind things about him behind his back. "Aragona has a dangerous mouth. He'll get himself in trouble," said one.
Other Republicans recall with some embarrassment the time Aragona called up O'Malley and warned him that he would be the target of the 1978 Republican campaign. O'Malley, in recounting the telephone conversation, said Aragona likened the situation to a gunslingers' showdown in the Old West.
"We don't know what he was trying to do by making that phone call, said Otto. "If he was attacking O'Malley to get to Kelly, he doesn't know his politics. O'Malley and Kelly aren't in bed together.They are from opposite factions. If certainly embarrassed me and a lot of other people."
Aragona, in response, said O'Malley had come to symbolize the Democratic regime's "New Quality" campaign, which he claimed has mixed "tremendous political clout with tremendous economic clout in such a way that the conflict of interests are abundant." Along with his unofficial political duties, O'Malley is an attorney who represents several major private enterprises in the county, including the Capital Centre.
At his campaign announcement party last Saturday at the Prince George Motor Hotel, Aragona not only repeated the O'Malley challenge but also indicated that his campaign will attempt to match Kelly's highpowered boosterism of the county's image and spirit.
Robert Ennis was the chairman of the Prince George's Republican Party in 1974 when the 53-to-0 shutout took place. The bitterness - some of it directed at the press - lingers four years later.
"I think an awful lot of what happens this year is going to depend on the way the media plays the Republicans in Prince George's," he said in a recent interview. "My observation is that The Post and The Star are the opinion molders. If they are willing to give us a fair shake, I think we can hold our own with the public. The Republican Party in Prince George's has been equated with the national party - with Nixon - during the bad times and ignored during the good times. The media around here has never equated the Republicans with reform, but that's what the party has always represented in Prince George's."
It was the Republican Party, Ennis claimed, that pushed the charter reform that enabled Prince George's to have a strong home-rule government headed by a county executive. The press ignored his party's role in that movement he said "because it was more interested in getting my opinion on the troubles of the national party."
Ennis said he believed the "major media hypes are now out of the way. I don't know if that gives us a better chance, but I think we can now all concentrate on the campaign rather than being defensive."