Frederick County Council President Bud Otis changed his party affiliation from Republican to unaffiliated on Thursday.
In a morning announcement at Winchester Hall, Otis said the path of the Frederick County Republican party has become too extreme.
“Today, I’m sad. Because I have to abandon my party. I’m forced to make the change,” Otis said.
Otis said he was responding to “allegations and accusations being hurled against me by members of my own political party.” Otis said recent comments on local talk radio were “outrageous, mean-spirited, and intended to inflict the highest level of pain on both me and my family.”
Otis said he was a proud lifelong Republican, but the “Republican Party of today in Frederick County no longer has a place for conservative, yet moderate, Republicans like me.”
His switch changes the balance of power on the council to three Democrats and three Republicans, plus an unaffiliated Otis — although Otis has often voted with Democrats since he took office.
Even the council’s first vote upon inauguration in December 2014 showed division. With three Republican members, it was the three Democrats — M.C. Keegan-Ayer, Jerry Donald and Jessica Fitzwater — who joined with Otis to elect him president of the council.
A separate vote — to elevate Republican Billy Shreve to president — drew a 3-4 vote, with Republicans Kirby Delauter and Tony Chmelik supporting his bid, but Otis voting against it.
Dozens of times since the election, Otis has broken from the Republicans on the council to join Democrats in supporting various measures. He has said the council has a “good majority” that works to get things done.
Otis said he’s sure some people will ask him to step down as council president, but he has no plans to do so.
“I’m sure the same antagonists will probably do that. But you have to count to four,” he said, indicating that Republicans don’t have a majority vote to put someone else in the position.
Otis said he went to the Frederick County Board of Elections at 8 a.m. Thursday to change his registration to “unaffiliated.”
Otis said his decision to leave the party was because of recent comments by council members and onetime Republican council candidate Ellen Bartlett, who is the wife of Otis’ previous boss, former Congressman Roscoe Bartlett.
Delauter said publicly this week that Otis had pressured him to act a certain way on the council and threatened him if he did not. Ellen Bartlett this week made accusations about Otis’ past personal and professional behavior.
Otis called Bartlett’s comments patently false.
He said other attempts to question his character were bullying and a “misguided and destructive attempt to control me.”
On Thursday, Delauter stood behind his allegation that Otis had also attempted to control him.
“Bud Otis doesn’t know me very well. I don’t intimidate very easily. I will stand up for what I think is right,” Delauter said. “I ran for office to change things and make the county a better place.”
He added that he doesn’t think he’s created conflicts on the council. “If you look at the tapes, I’m pretty calm. I’m speaking my mind,” Delauter said. “That’s what my constituents keep asking me to do.”
Shreve, who has said Otis is “a trained monkey by the Democrats” in Facebook posts, said he hasn’t lodged personal attacks against Otis, but he will.
“Tell him to hang on, because it’s just getting started,” Shreve said Thursday.
Shreve, who is chairman of the Frederick County Republican Central Committee, said Otis never voted with the Republican majority on significant issues and won’t be missed from the party.
“He left the party within minutes of being sworn in,” Shreve said, criticizing Otis’ votes on things such as the county budget and keeping the county property tax rate constant, instead of lowering it to a “constant yield” rate.
“Elections have consequences. Just remember that,” Shreve said at the council’s most recent meeting this week.
Members of the County Council were notified Thursday morning of Otis’ decision.
Keegan-Ayer, the council’s vice president, was in Winchester Hall during Otis’ announcement. She watched the announcement on a television in a conference room.
“Obviously, he’d had enough. ... He was very upset yesterday with the personal attacks,” Keegan-Ayer said.
She said the council still has “some rocky road to get over,” but she hopes a majority will be able to move legislation forward.
“The citizens elected us to do our job. We were elected to be legislators. So far, there has been a dearth of legislation from the folks complaining,” Keegan-Ayer said. “You can’t just sit there and lob grenades all day long. Do the job you were elected to do.”
Other current and former officials in Frederick County also reacted to Otis’ announcement.
“It’s the Republican party’s gain and the unaffiliated party’s loss,” said Republican state Sen. Michael Hough, who was at a bill signing in Annapolis when he received a text message with news of Otis’ announcement.
Hough said the Republican party is stronger than ever nationally and has more than enough room for different viewpoints, but Otis’ views are simply no longer Republican.
“He’s with Jan [Gardner] 100 percent of the time. People are like, ‘What’s going on? I thought we elected a Republican majority council,’” Hough said.
County Executive Jan Gardner, a Democrat, said the acrimony on the council is unlike anything she’s seen before in the county, where she also served for 12 years on the former Board of County Commissioners.
“It’s very reprehensible,” Gardner said after Otis’ announcement. “Right now, there’s such a lack of camaraderie on the County Council, and it’s really because of the personal attacks and the negative comments that really spew mostly from two people. It just creates an environment that’s very negative.”
Former Board of County Commissioners President Blaine Young, who challenged Gardner for the county executive seat in 2014, said he regrets supporting the transition to charter government and his support for Otis.
“I personally supported Bud Otis and allowed him to solicit my donors and base with my full support. I signed fundraising letters and put my reputation on the line that he would uphold the principals (sic) of the Republican party,” Young said in an email. “Obviously, many of us are shocked and disappointed with his leadership.”
Young, who also changed political parties in 2002 to affiliate with the Republican Party, said he waited to make the change until he left his position as a Frederick city alderman. Young said he waited to make the change out of respect for voters, adding that he believes Otis was elected because of the “R” after his name in 2014.
Otis is one of two at-large members elected to the council. He received the most votes of any council members in the 2014 election.
Otis is far from alone in registering as an unaffiliated voter in Frederick. A little more than 22 percent of county voters were unaffiliated for April’s primary election. Frederick County ranks third in the state in terms of the number of registered voters who consider themselves unaffiliated.
Otis’ current term on the council runs until Dec. 1, 2018.
Asked Thursday if he would consider running for re-election, Otis responded defiantly.
“Why not? I love my job. I love people. We’ll see if I run as a Republican or if I run as an independent. That would depend on what the party does.”