- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Maryland Republican Party’s executive committee has asked its chairman to explain the forced resignation of the party’s top staff member or step down himself.

It is just the latest problem to roil a state party that has thousands of dollars in debt, no clear candidates to challenge Gov. Martin O’Malley next year and is in turmoil over its reaction to a local political club’s recent comparison of President Obama to Adolf Hitler.

The party’s 31-member executive committee has asked Chairman James Pelura III to explain the departure Monday of Executive Director Justin Ready, who has served in the position since April 2008.

Mr. Pelura issued an e-mail to the executive committee Monday afternoon, saying he asked Mr. Ready for his resignation.

“Justin’s interests and those of the MDGOP are not the same,” Mr. Pelura said in the e-mail. He scheduled a July 18 meeting with the executive committee to explain his decision.

But the e-mail prompted a quick response from the state party’s representatives to the national committee and the executive committee’s seven officers, who unanimously voted to ask Mr. Pelura to step aside if he could not justify the personnel move.

“There needs to be some explaining,” Chris Cavey, first vice chairman of the state party, told The Washington Times on Tuesday. The executive committee is made up principally of local party leaders.

Chuck Gast, the state party’s second vice chairman, said he understood that the dispute that led to Mr. Ready’s dismissal concerned a plan to hold a training session later this month for Republicans running for state office. Mr. Pelura objected to having former party spokeswoman Audra Harrison teach a media course, because she is perceived as a political rival, Mr. Gast said.

Multiple party sources backed the account, saying that Mr. Pelura demanded Mr. Ready’s resignation and presented Mr. Ready with a folder of the former executive director’s own e-mails, including correspondence about the candidate training.

Mr. Cavey said his understanding was that Mr. Ready refused to resign, so Mr. Pelura fired him without consulting the executive committee. He said the party’s events planner, April Rose, quit an hour later in protest.

Mr. Ready could not be reached for comment. Mr. Pelura did not respond to phone messages, an e-mail or a message left with the party’s newly appointed acting executive director, Cathy Watts. Ms. Watts said she could not comment on Mr. Ready’s departure.

Sources close to the dispute, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter, said Mr. Pelura and Mr. Ready disagreed on several issues, including the state party’s reaction to a recent flap over a Web posting by Joyce E. Thomann, president of the Republican Women of Anne Arundel County, comparing Mr. Obama to Hitler.

“Hitlers blitzkrieg bombing destroyed many European cities - quickly and effectively. Obama is systematically destroying the American economy and with it AMERICA,” she wrote on the group’s Web site.

The sources said Mr. Ready wanted the party to avoid commenting after the remark drew unwanted national attention.

During an interview with the Baltimore Jewish Times, Mr. Pelura cautiously defended the women’s group, which had awarded him a citation in May that characterized him as the “perfect face of the Republican Party.” His wife is a past president of the group.

“Would I have used that comparison? Probably not,” the newspaper quoted Mr. Pelura as saying. While not “supporting or disavowing it,” he said, “I understand the context of the comparison.”

Mrs. Thomann issued an apology for the comment through her husband, Charles Thomann, a Republican member of the Maryland State Board of Elections. The women’s group has disavowed the comments on its Web site.

This is not the first time Mr. Pelura, who has served as party chairman since December 2006, has been taken to task by his own party.

Maryland House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell and House Minority Whip Christopher B. Shank wrote to the party’s executive committee last week, complaining about Mr. Pelura’s criticism of Republican legislators’ ineffectiveness.

“It is simply unacceptable to have a party leader in this position openly critical of our elected Republicans,” the legislators said. “The House and Senate leadership have tried to work with Dr. Pelura for years, to no avail.”

Forcing the resignation of a party chairman requires a two-thirds vote at a party convention. Republicans in Virginia ousted their party chairman, Jeffrey M. Frederick, in a similar process in April after complaints that he mismanaged party resources.

Maryland Democrats control the governor’s mansion and hold comfortable majorities in both the state House and Senate. The state has supported the Democratic candidate for president in each election since 1992.

But with the ongoing economic recession and tax increases under the O’Malley administration, Republicans see an opportunity to win seats in the legislature and perhaps challenge the Democratic governor, whose approval rating has not exceeded 50 percent since March 2007 - two months after he took office.

A January poll by Annapolis-based Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies pegged Mr. O’Malley’s approval rate at 49 percent. With former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. undecided about a run, it remains unclear whether any other candidate can marshal the resources to challenge the well-funded Mr. O’Malley.

Among the state Republican Party’s ongoing struggles, its leaders who have been briefed on the situation said the organization is between $40,000 and $60,000 in debt.

The most recent campaign finance disclosures, filed in January, show the party with outstanding obligations of more than $57,000. Similar financial disclosures from January 2008 showed the party more than $100,000 in debt.

Mr. Cavey said he also was frustrated that Mr. Pelura had not followed through on long-standing plans to put a party finance committee into place to address the financial woes.

He said that while he did not think the party was in serious financial trouble, he did think Mr. Pelura was headed down a troubling path in preparing for the 2010 elections.

“We do not have a spending problem at the state party,” he said. “What we have is an income problem.”

• Matthew Cella can be reached at mcella@washingtontimes.com.

• Tom LoBianco can be reached at tlobianco@washingtontimes.com.

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