- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 15, 2005

BEL AIR, Md. (AP) — Twenty years ago, registered Democrats in Harford County outnumbered Republicans by better than 2-to-1, and in the words of one longtime resident, “If you weren’t a Democrat, you weren’t nothing.”

Today, Republicans have the big momentum in this suburban Maryland county north of Baltimore. Thus, the New Harford Democratic Club — embattled, besieged and fast approaching the day when they will be outnumbered — has added a caveat for candidates seeking its support. They must first pledge not to switch parties once they get into office.

“If you’re a Democrat, you’re a Democrat, and if we help you get elected, you’re not gonna pull some game and switch things up,” the club’s president, John F. Haggerty, told the Baltimore Sun.

The club is responding to what it perceives as a troubling trend — the number of registered Republicans in the county almost equals that of registered Democrats, and several elected officials, sensing the direction of the wind, have changed parties.

For example, the club supported Havre de Grace Mayor John Correri, who has run as a Democrat for the House of Delegates and the County Council. Mr. Correri told the Sun recently that he is now a registered Republican.

Mr. Haggerty said two Bel Air town commissioners who ran as Democrats in 2002 are now Republicans, including James V. McMahan Jr., a 67-year-old retired Army veteran and local talk show host known as “Captain Jim.”

Mr. McMahan is said to be considering a run for a seat on the seven-member County Council, which has just one Democrat. He attributes his change in parties to a change in philosophy.

“It was a personal preference,” he said, declining to elaborate. “I think you have to follow your conscience.”

Democratic leaders accuse some officials of political opportunism.

“The simple game is that Harford County voters have been notorious in the last couple elections of going to polls and voting ‘R,’ no matter who’s there,” Mr. Haggerty said. “Now you see people jumping on that. I think it’s shameful.”

But Republican leaders say officials simply reflect the changing sentiments of voters.

“I think you’ll hear cries and squawking from Democratic Party officials over numerous changes in party affiliation lately, and that can be attributed to one thing — the Democratic Party in Maryland is out of touch with the values, beliefs and economic principles of people in the state,” said Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the state Republican Party.

William G. Christoforo, chairman of the county Republican Central Committee, added: “It’s gotta be discouraging for the Democrats. I’d certainly be demoralized if I’m a Democratic activist.”

Statewide, Maryland remains a blue state — 55 percent of registered voters are Democrats, compared to 29 percent Republicans.

On the other hand, voters in 2002 elected Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. the state’s first Republican governor in almost 40 years, and the national GOP is gearing up to support the expected candidacy of Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele for the U.S. Senate.

State party leaders are convinced that, like Harford County, much of the state outside of the immediate environs of Washington and Baltimore is up for grabs.

“When I came out of the Army, if you weren’t a Democrat, you weren’t nothing,” said Harry L. Hopkins, county register of wills and one of the few elected Democrats in any position in the county. “Now if you’re not a Republican, you’re nothing.”

Mr. Hopkins, 79, says he, too, has decided to change parties, a move he expects to have few, if any, repercussions.

“Besides, I work with dead people,” he said. “They don’t complain.”

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