Power Plays

Turmoil, Tantrums and Turf Wars in Local Politics

By Katherine Heerbrandt and Illustrations by Goodloe Byron | Posted on 03.04.15 – Feature, People & Places

Three Frederick County Council members walked into a bar. (No, this isn’t a joke.) As they settled in with their brews, a hush came over the place and all eyes went to the television in the corner. Turn it up, someone implored. And there it was—Rachel Maddow on MSNBC gleefully giving Councilman Kirby Delauter a thorough drubbing for threatening a local reporter with a lawsuit if she uses his name in the newspaper again. “Behold Kirby Delauter!” she intoned.

She read the now infamous Facebook post that Delauter wrote to The Frederick News-Post’s Bethany Rogers, along with Rogers’ classy response, and Delauter’s followup threat. To the sounds of derisive hooting off camera, Maddow worked up a froth over Delauter’s threat to sue Rogers for the misdeed of doing her job. Behind Maddow flashed pictures of Delauter and multiple shots of his name as she read from the paper’s editorial that deemed Delauter’s reaction “ridiculously stupid.”

Calling Delauter “a laughingtstock,” Maddow wrapped up the segment by pointing out that Delauter’s gaffe was widely reported around the world and he would likely suffer consequences for some time. “This guy is now the guy who says that, as an elected official, he has the right to decide whether or not his name is allowed to be used in the news,” Maddow said. “Amazing.”

According to one observer, an embarrassed silence and averted eyes followed the broadcast in the bar, as Delauter and fellow council members Billy Shreve and Tony Chmelik huddled over their drinks. Not so, says Shreve; instead, the room applauded and Delauter received hearty pats on the back for making national news.

The actual punch line is likely somewhere in between. After being skewered by the likes of National Public Radio, The Washington Post, Newsweek and the BBC, Delauter surfaced to apologize in a statement, calling his response to a story on, of all things, council members’ parking spaces “wrong and inappropriate.”

Despite the ridicule, most people know Delauter’s smarter than the role played on Facebook and is well aware of the First Amendment. He simply flipped his lid and mouthed off, not an unfamiliar reaction for the sometimes-grumpy official, now in his second term in elected county office.

Delauter learned a hard lesson. In an email, he writes he looks “forward to working with the press,” including Rogers. He wants to focus on the work of government, and share his ideas on how to “continue to make this county a place where everyone can be proud to live. … I made a mistake that’s all there is to it. I think my apology to that issue speaks for itself … we have moved on.”

Well, except for The Baltimore Sun mock Valentine’s Day card featuring Delauter’s name, picture and the words “say my name, say my name.” Some mistakes are hard to bury. “They can’t get enough of me,”
Delauter says in an email about the card. But Delauter’s blunder was not the first or last display of Republican turmoil in recent months.

The series of events began with an unrelated dustup when the former president of the County Commissioners confessed at a government meeting to an affair; that was followed by the Delauter debacle and then accusations that the county’s Republican Central Committee and a state delegate were warring with fellow Republicans in the name of true conservatism; and then onto “textgate,” which pit Sheriff Chuck Jenkins against state Del. Kathy Afzali, both popular Republicans.

Sound like reality TV? Not even close. Think of a campy, soapy, small-town version of House of Cards, minus the designer wardrobes. “I bet the Democrats are just laughing their heads off up at Café 611,” says Bob Miller, popular radio host of WFMD’s Morning News Express.

As a result, the county Republicans have fractured, dividing into two camps. The most prominent one is led by state Sen. Michael Hough and Afzali; it claims to be the more conservative wing of the party— and the most popular, given the election outcomes. But County Councilman Shreve, who has been aligned with Hough and Afzali, insists the division in the party is not about ideological differences.

“This is a personal thing, not a party issue, he says. “We can still work together.” The whole thing stinks, says Republican Marty Burns, Thurmont town commissioner and former mayor. “We have to be inclusive,” he says of the party. “We can’t be far right or far left. They [Hough and Afzali] think they have a mandate … because of numbers they pulled [in the election], and be damned what anyone thinks. That’s a problem.”

Some long-time county Republicans point to former Frederick County state Sen. Alex Mooney, now a congressman representing West Virginia, as the original problem child. A relentless campaigner who aggressively raises piles of cash, the conservative Mooney was ousted from the Senate after three terms by Democrat Ron Young in 2010, and left for the greener pastures of John Denver country.

In his wake came Hough, also a hard-right Republican who pulled together like-minded candidates on a 2014 slate, and is credited with peppering the Central Committee with allies, including his wife, JoeyLynn, as chair. Hough is generally viewed as a savvier, more-reserved version of his mentor Mooney.

Like his mentor, though, Hough understands the value of a well-oiled money machine and how to win elections. He raised some eyebrows last year when he challenged state Sen. David Brinkley’s reelection campaign, a bid that didn’t sit well with a lot of local Republicans, especially when Hough trounced the former Minority Leader. (Brinkley has since been appointed Gov. Larry Hogan’s Secretary of Budget and Finance.)

Hough’s slate was mostly successful, with Afzali and David Vogt winning delegate seats. “During Republican primaries it’s fine for us to air our differences,” Hough wrote in an email.

“However, afterwards we all need to abide by Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment, ‘Thou shall not speak ill of another Republican.’”

Still, the Mooney legacy lingers in the minds of some Republicans who see troubling connections. “Alex Mooney lost because he didn’t invite in the people who put him there,” says Sandy Dalton, Clerk of Court for the Circuit Court for Frederick County. “Michael Hough doesn’t invite in the people who put him there; Kathy Afzali doesn’t invite in the people who put her there.”

Of the 11-member GOP Central Committee, six—with Shreve as a seventh—ran on Hough’s slate. “This is not about party, but about their own political futures,” Burns says. He accuses Shreve of wanting to run for Ron Young’s District 3 senate seat. Shreve agrees the seat is ripe for a Republican with name recognition, and that people have asked him to run.

Higher offices for Hough and Afzali may not be far behind, either, Shreve says. He believes Democratic U.S. Rep. John Delany’s congressional seat is vulnerable, and Hough may have a chance in 2016. “That’s a natural progression for him,” Shreve says. If that happens, he says he would not be surprised to see Afzali nominated to fill Hough’s state senate seat.

The Hough machine faltered, however, when ally Blaine Young lost to Democrat Jan Gardner in the county executive race. Since that loss, Young continued to make headlines by having himself appointed to the Planning Commission before his county commissioner term ended. He later stepped down on Jan. 12, weeks after outgoing Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler called the action void because Young was still a county commissioner at the time of his appointment.

But on Dec. 16, weeks before Young issued his resignation from the Planning Commission, he gave a cringe-inducing speech to the new County Council, irate over the demotion of his girlfriend, Regina Howell, the county budget officer during his tenure when she earned roughly $120,000 a year.

Under Gardner, Howell became an analyst in the procurement and contracting department, earning $80,000. “I’m here, because of something so wrong and egregious, I felt compelled to come here,” Young said. Lamenting no public process to put Howell on the hit list other than to hurt him, Young asked the council to find out if Gardner overstepped her authority.

Although the county executive was not at the meeting, she watched it on TV. Young’s behavior was embarrassing, she says, but wants to move on from the contentiousness of the campaign. “People are happy to not have the bickering anymore, and are excited about being involved in government again,” she says, citing scores of applicants for both the Planning and Ethics commissions.

Young did not respond to requests for comment. On the heels of Young’s public troubles, the Republican Central Committee angered many local Republicans by opting not to select Wendi Peters to replace Del. Kelly Schulz, appointed by Gov. Hogan as Secretary of the Department of Labor and Licensing.

Peters, who placed fourth in the primary election behind Afzali, Schulz and Vogt, was thought by some to be a logical choice for Schulz’s seat. But despite her showing at the polls, Peters was not even one of the three candidates interviewed by the Central Committee, among the 21 who applied for the seat.

Barrie Ciliberti, a former state delegate from Montgomery County and slate mate to Hough and company came in fifth in the primary, but was ultimately the Central Committee’s choice. His swearing in was momentarily delayed because of campaign finance violations. Dalton calls the nomination process “a slap in the face of voters.”

Anita Stup, former delegate, county commissioner and commissioners’ president, served with Ciliberti in the 1990s. (She was unimpressed because he was often absent from committee meetings and votes, she says.)

“It should have been a no-brainer in my opinion that Wendi should have got it,” Stup wrote in an email. “…We have enough embarrassment as Republicans right here in this county.”

Central Committee Chairwoman JoeyLynn Hough wrote in an email: “I am sure the family, friends and supporters of the 20 people who did not get the appointment are disappointed. Contested elections and appointments are usually contentious. However, it is time to move forward and unite behind all our Republican elected officials.”

As for Peters, the chapter’s closed and she wants to be positive moving forward, she says. “Mechanically, they [the Central Committee] followed a process. That’s all I have to say about that.” But, as that brouhaha heated up, WFMD’s Frederick’s Forum host Pattee Brown invited former Republican Central Committee chair and current Sheriff Chuck Jenkins on to discuss the saga.

During the broadcast, Brown, in her own inimitable style, repeatedly called Afzali “Miss Icky” and Hough “Power Ranger.” (Brown, who admits she has “no edit button,” called Afzali by her actual name during the two-hour show, and then said, “Uh, oh, I said her name. I almost threw up in my mouth.”)

As a result, Afzali, who didn’t respond to two requests to comment on this story, was none too happy. But what the leader of Frederick County’s delegation to the General Assembly did next had heads shaking and tongues wagging from Thurmont to Middletown.

Afzali, now in her second term as District 4 delegate, sent texts to the sheriff during a volunteer fire company banquet in Emmitsburg, calling him “a wimp” and “a bully,” and telling him he had “no power.” The texts also referenced an anti-bullying banner in the room at Mother Seton Elementary School.

Jenkins, who says he didn’t recognize the number, initially thought it was a stalker and started looking around for the anonymous texter. Afzali was spotted and outed by attendees, who shared the story with WFMD. When the story came out, Afzali blamed her angry outburst on Jenkins for calling her juvenile names on the WFMD show, which he did not. Later, he said he didn’t think to correct the host at the time.

On Bob Miller’s morning show on Jan. 22, Afzali tried defending her actions in the texting fiasco, following a tense interview with WFMD’s Tim May on Mid Maryland Live the afternoon before on the same subject. Finding a somewhat sympathetic ear in Miller, Afzali defended the Central Committee’s decision not to interview Peters, citing the candidate’s stance on abortion, simultaneously revealing she had inside knowledge, despite previous denials from her and Hough that they were not privy to Central Committee business.

But Peters, like Ciliberti, while not endorsed by Maryland Right to Life, maintains she has always been pro-life in the abortion debate, a position that should have aligned her with, not put her against, the Central Committee.

Afzali also claimed on Miller’s show that a strong applicant for Schulz’s seat dropped out of consideration after he was “so badgered by this group of people who are now badgering me, he was overwhelmed by hate and venom coming towards them [that] he withdrew,” Afzali told Miller.

But that applicant, Christopher Glass, texted Peters and said he dropped out, not because he was being badgered, but because Peters wasn’t being interviewed. “Ms. Peters … I withdrew my application for the district vacancy … due to my concerns over this process. … If you were not being interviewed … how could I?” the text message read.

Afzali admitted to Miller that she should wait 24 hours instead of sending messages, but asks elected officials to be more professional in their dealings with each other. “We are a laughingstock in Annapolis,” she admitted. Miller thinks that despite Afzali saying she had no regrets, he believes she would not do it again if she had the chance.

And although Sheriff Jenkins says he gives Afzali “the respect she deserves” as a delegate, and will “continue to work with her the best I can,” he won’t forget. Until there’s a changing of the guard, Jenkins is doubtful that party unity is forthcoming. “I am not sure it can be fixed with our current RCC.

Several of its members worked against me, an incumbent, and supported another Republican in the primary,” referring to Kevin Grubb, the former high-ranking officer with the Frederick City Police Department who lost big to Jenkins. Jenkins adds he’s not afraid to go up against Hough or Afzali for higher office.

To Afzali’s allegation that the sheriff hates Blaine Young, along with her and Hough, Jenkins counters that he publicly endorsed Young both times he ran for county office. In a letter, later posted on Facebook, columnist Mary Posey gently took Afzali to task, and nudged her to make it right. “Here is what I encourage you to do for the sake of your family, for your sake and definitely for the sake of our Republican Party—most especially your district constituents: Issue a statement of apology to your constituents and our Sheriff immediately. I believe you will find it refreshing. We will find it refreshing—and at the end of the day, even your worst enemies will have to face the truth that you admitted wrongdoing,” Posey wrote in a Jan. 22 email.

As of mid- February, she had no response. For Marty Burns, the time to mend wounds suffered by the Republican Party is past. “They [Hough and company] poked the bear, and we are going to poke back,” he says.

“I have never been more excited about politics in my life. Now there’s something to work for. There needs to be a change,” he says.

Although Shreve recognizes dissent in the party, he continues to deny any real division. “The best candidates always win,” he says, including Democrat Jan Gardner. “In this election, Jan Gardner was the best candidate and she won.” If his fellow Republicans don’t like the outcome, they can run themselves, he says. “The majority of Republicans don’t even care. It’s just a few vocal minority people who are on Facebook.”

If there’s any real rift in the party, Shreve says it’s because of Bud Otis, president of the County Council and former chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett. Otis has vowed to work together across party lines—a stance that has caused some eyes to roll in his own party. As for Otis, he says Shreve’s “entitled to his opinion.

I spend my time on getting work done for the county,” Otis says. “I am not into those discussions.” Hough also writes in an email that he’s staying out of the fray … or frays. “Right now, I am in Annapolis, busy focusing on legislation and I don’t feel it’s my responsibility to comment on every spat between elected officials.”