New GOP chairwoman comes out swinging

Scott uses mammogram fuss to attack

Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2009

ANNAPOLIS — With less than a week on the job, Maryland Republican Party Chairwoman Audrey Scott has found an issue to debate with her Democratic counterpart: mammograms.

On Nov. 18, a day after a national task force recommended that women put off regular mammograms until they are 50, Scott was still reeling and called the change "absolutely horrendous — absolutely, totally unconscionable. That's going to have tremendous ripple effects," Scott said. "I don't believe women's best interests are being represented."

She called the new guidelines "restrictions," which she connected to the Obama administration. Scott suggested local candidates should use the issue as they seek office next year.

"People will say, ‘That's national.' But the thing is — and I won't let people forget this and I won't let him forget this — Obama's No. 1 cheerleader is a guy named O'Malley."

Susan Turnbull, chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party, fought back, calling Scott's comments "reprehensible" and untrue.

"Governor O'Malley and [U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) of Baltimore] are two of the strongest advocates for health care that anyone could possibly ask for," she said.

And, Turnbull said, health care for women should not be politicized. Her own mother's death as a result of breast cancer led her to become politically active, she said.

To Scott, mammograms are just one of the state and national issues that are generating "genuine unrest" among the voters, giving the GOP plenty of raw material to fuel the party's 2010 races.

"It might not be the message that, ‘Gee, I got to go vote Republican,' but there's the sense that, ‘Gee, I don't like what I'm reading,'" Scott said.

But before the party can convert unrest into electoral victories, it faces an uphill climb financially, and the person who could be the GOP's marquee candidate next year remains on the sidelines.

Scott insists that she won't pressure Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to run for governor, again.

"Timing is critical, but the only person who can decide what the best time is for Bobby Ehrlich to make his decision is Bobby Ehrlich," said Scott, who served as Ehrlich's planning secretary from 2003 until 2007.

But the money is something she will work on immediately.

The party's latest financial report shows it has $5,600 in its checking account.

"I'll be dialing for dollars," Scott said. "People are going to get where they don't take my phone calls."

Her first step is to ask each of the state's 240 GOP central committee members to come up with 10 names to call in search of money.

"That's a bit of a stretch, but you've got to have a goal," she said.

She's already seen the party's finances improve. During a speech Saturday, after party members elected her chairwoman, Scott mentioned the need for everyone to donate money to the party. A central committee member walked up and handed her a check. Soon, dozens of others approached the podium, checks in hand. She raised about $4,000.

Scott replaces James Pelura, who faced growing criticism from elected Republicans and his own top lieutenants over his leadership. Pelura remained defiant, then resigned abruptly in September.

One of the first items on Scott's to-do list is to mend fences with Republican lawmakers. They objected to Pelura creating a pair of commissions, one on tax relief and the other on environmental regulation, to help the party set policy. The delegates and senators believe they should set party policy.

"I've talked to leadership and I have asked that I have a seat at their table," Scott said. "I would like to reassure them all, each and every one of them, that I am there to support them. They are not there to support me."

The commissions could be disbanded.

"I want to tell you, I'm not sure there was a whole lot accomplished because I haven't seen the reports or anything yet," she said.

Scott said she planned to examine whether the commission members had a plan, what they hoped to do and whether they need more time.

"I'm not automatically doing anything," she said.

House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell said he looked forward to working with Scott. The party and the legislative leadership should work together, he said.

"Being mutually supportive and less combative is the goal," said O'Donnell (R-Calvert, St. Mary's).

Scott, a Massachusetts native who turns 74 next week, entered public service after a 1970s effort to build a hospital in Bowie. The process of working with county and state regulators, which led to the 1975 opening of the Bowie Health Center, could be disillusioning.

"I saw firsthand that a lot of decisions were not made on merit. That's as nicely as I can put it," she said.

So in response, she made her first attempt at elective office, winning a seat on the Bowie City Council, which led to three terms as Bowie mayor.

In January 1981, she ran for Congress in a special election to succeed Gladys Noon Spellman, who had suffered a stroke. Her opponent was Steny Hoyer, then president of the Maryland Senate.

Ronald Reagan had just won the presidency, so the race gained national attention because it was seen as an indicator of whether Reagan's victory could influence other elections.

Early returns from that election favored Scott.

"At 11:15 p.m., I was a congresswoman, and at 11:30 I wasn't. Steny was a congressman," she said.

After the race, Reagan appointed her to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where she stayed for 12 years.

She served two terms on the Prince George's County Council, as the only Republican in a county where Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans.

"By that time, I had already proven myself, and it didn't matter I had an ‘R' after my name," she said. She also served a stint as council vice chairwoman.

After Pelura announced his resignation, Scott was one of three people who actively sought the unpaid position.

Chris Cavey, who chairs the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee and serves as the state party's first vice chairman, withdrew his name from contention Oct. 29, citing party unity.

At the GOP convention recently in Bowie, central committee members chose between Scott and Daniel Vovak, a party eccentric. Scott won handily.

"I'm a fresh face to this position and this situation, and I think I was able to provide a certain comfort level that we're over that and it's behind us, and we're on to a new day," Scott said.

Staff writer Erin Cunningham contributed to this report.