ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Gov. Robert Ehrlich (search), responding to complaints about a fund-raiser at a golf club that critics say does not have any black members, described the flap Tuesday as "all a bunch of nothing."
"We have no access to the membership information. Obviously, we're renters. We come in and we pay our bill and we leave," he said.
Ehrlich, a Republican, also said during an interview on WBAL-AM in Baltimore that prominent Democrats have held fund-raisers at the Elkridge Club, but he would not release those names when asked to do so by The Associated Press.
Greg Massoni, Ehrlich's press secretary, said the governor did not want to release the information because Democrats "may have entered into this as innocently as we did." But he said there have been Democratic events at the Elkridge Club and "they know who they are."
A campaign spokesman for Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith told The (Baltimore) Sun Tuesday that a supporter hosted a May 4 fund-raiser for Smith at Elkridge Club.
"Jim Smith has never belonged to a country club in his life. He was not aware of the country club's membership composition, and as the leader of a diverse county, he appreciates that it has been brought to his attention. Clearly, he will not have future campaign events hosted at this location," Rachael Rice, a fund-raising consultant for the Smith campaign, told the newspaper.
Jay M. Wilson, president of the private club, and Joseph C. Fulco, the general manager, were not in their offices Tuesday to answer questions about the club's membership policies, and efforts to reach them at home were not immediately successful. Fulco also did not immediately respond to an e-mail request about political events at the club, which is along the Baltimore city-county line.
The Sun reported in a story for Saturday's editions that several club members and former officers that it did not name confirmed that the club has not had any black members in its 127-year history. The newspaper said members said the club does not have any written restrictions on the race of members and that blacks and other minorities have played golf and dined there.
Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (search), the state's first black lieutenant governor, said Tuesday in an interview with The AP that he had not talked with Ehrlich about the golf tournament that raised $100,000 for the governor's re-election bid and didn't know if it was appropriate to use the club as a location for a fund-raiser.
"I don't know that much about the club, the membership, nor do I care, quite frankly, because I don't play golf. It's not an issue with me," Steele said.
Steele's comment that the membership was not an issue and he had not talked to Ehrlich about the fund-raiser last month drew criticism from two black Democratic lawmakers.
Sen. Lisa Gladden of Baltimore said as a black lieutenant governor, Steele "ought to be more sensitive. He ought to be the first person out front speaking of injustice everywhere. It's bigger than he says it is, and he needs to step up to the plate and do the right thing."
Delegate Adrienne Jones of Baltimore County said for Steele "to dismiss that as nothing is a slap in the face of those of us who are African Americans."
"It should matter," she said.
Golfers interviewed Tuesday in Baltimore said they were not bothered by the fund-raiser at Elkridge Club.
"I don't think anything is wrong with it," said Ed Smith, a black golfer playing at Mount Pleasant Golf Course. He's trying to raise money."
But Joe D. Allen, a black employee at the Forest Park Golf Course, said Ehrlich "had to know that it would be controversial."
"His actions demonstrate what I thought about him in the first place. I don't think he's competent," Allen said. "I think Republicans think that they can divide the black community and get a lot of the voters in the city to vote for them because of Steele."
During the radio interview, Ehrlich said his campaign staff makes decisions on where to hold fund-raisers and he does not know what the club's membership policies are. A double standard was applied to him because Democrats were not criticized for holding events at the club, he said.
"It's a nonstory for them and a nonstory for us," he said.
As a private club, Elkridge does not have to disclose names of its members. After a state law was passed prohibiting country clubs from getting a property tax break if they discriminated in their membership policies, the Elkridge Club gave up its tax break in 1977 rather than give its membership list to the state, Robert A. Zarnoch, an assistant attorney general, told The Sun.