State delegate charged with hitting his wife
Apr. 3, 2002
Josh Kurtz and Manju Subramanya
Staff Writers

Submitted photo

State Del. Dana Lee Dembrow (left) was charged with hitting his wife, Suzette, in the face Sunday, which is second-degree assault. He issued a statement Monday apologizing for the incident.

A flurry of charges and counter claims of domestic abuse has put flamboyant Del. Dana Lee Dembrow's personal life in public turmoil, and his political career in jeopardy.

Dembrow was charged with second-degree assault Sunday for hitting his wife in the face. On Monday morning, the 48-year-old Silver Spring delegate issued a statement admitting a "physical altercation" and apologizing to his wife and to "the people of Maryland."

But by Monday evening he had launched a counter offensive. He accused his 39-year-old wife, Suzette, whom he described in court papers as "a former professional boxer," of assaulting and provoking him.

In an interview with The Gazette, Dembrow was contrite but insisted "my act was responsive. I was not the initiator."

On Tuesday morning after the incident was made public, the District 20 delegate returned to the House chamber, calling it "one of the toughest things I've ever had to do." But a steady stream of colleagues and lobbyists came up to Dembrow during the day, offering handshakes and encouraging words.

"It's been a wonderful outpouring of support," he said, his voice breaking. "I've never felt as much a part of this [legislative] family."

In his civil complaint filed late Monday in District Court in Rockville, Dembrow alleged that his wife struck him "deliberately and viciously" in the face on Saturday and taunted him with the words: "Go ahead and hit me back."

On Sunday, Dembrow did so, police said.

Both husband and wife called 911 within a minute of each other to report spousal assault, said county police spokesman Officer Derek Baliles.

At 6:40 p.m., police arrived at the Dembrows' home on Schubert Drive and found Suzette Dembrow sitting on her porch with a towel over her head and blood running down her nose and on her fingers and arms. She had a half-inch cut on her nose and swollen, discolored eyes, police said in District Court charging documents.

Dana Dembrow told police that he and his wife had been arguing since the previous evening and that she had slapped him first. The delegate had a small mark on his right cheek and two small scratches on his left palm, police noted in charging documents. Police had been called to the Dembrow home Saturday by Suzette Dembrow but left after finding "no physical evidence" of assault, Baliles said.

After the Sunday fight, police arrested Dana Dembrow and took him in handcuffs to the county jail in Rockville, where he was fingerprinted, photographed and later taken before a district commissioner who released him on his promise that he would appear in court at a later date. The four-term Democrat was charged with one count of second-degree assault, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of a $2,500 fine and 10 years in jail. Suzette Dembrow was taken by ambulance to Laurel Regional Hospital, police said.

She appeared Monday with her lawyer, Beth Rogers, in Circuit Court in Rockville to ask Judge Michael Pincus to issue an order granting protection from her husband. Pincus granted the temporary order and had the case sealed, according to information posted on court computers. The judge set a second hearing for April 10 where he will consider issuing a longer duration protective order. Rogers did not return two calls.

The couple, married for 12 years, has two children.

Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler, a Democrat like Dembrow, asked Frederick County State's Attorney Scott Rolle, a Republican, to handle the case "to avoid any appearance of a possible conflict of interest," said Gansler's deputy Katherine Winfree.

Rolle said Tuesday that any trial would be held in Montgomery County. A date has not been set.

The reaction in the political world was swift but divided. Montgomery County Councilman Howard A. Denis (R-Dist. 1) of Chevy Chase called on Dembrow to resign, saying, "Those of us in public office cannot look the other way when one of our own is guilty of a violent act."

Some legislative colleagues felt differently.

"It's our duty now to support him," said Del. John A. Giannetti Jr. (D-Dist. 13B) of Laurel, who serves on the House Judiciary Committee with Dembrow and represents an adjoining district. "It's important for us to give Dana his space to confront his problems as he sees fit. I think we should see this as a family problem."

The Maryland Women Legislators caucus, which twice went after Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Durke Thompson and has targeted other domestic violence perpetrators, is not expected to recommend any action against Dembrow, said Del. Adrienne A. Mandel (D-Dist. 19) of Silver Spring, the caucus's new president. She said she has gotten "no feedback" from her colleagues on the Dembrow case.

Dembrow had been preparing to run for the state Senate in the new District 14 in the northeastern portion of Montgomery County. He was expected to face a tough potential Democratic primary against Del. Tod D. Sher (D-Dist. 14A) of Silver Spring. Former Washington Redskins star Raymond Schoenke Jr. and businesswoman Rona Kramer are also considering entering the Democratic Senate race there, and Del. Richard A. LaVay (R-Dist. 15) of Olney could also run.

Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., a Bethesda polling firm, called the domestic abuse charges against Dembrow "an albatross around his neck as he enters the political season."

"My guess is loyal voters will stay with him and give him the benefit of the doubt," Haller said. "For people who don't know him, it's going to be a major problem."

Dembrow also has considered the possibility of moving back into District 20 to run for his old House seat. However, the other two incumbents with whom he has long feuded, Dels. Peter Franchot of Takoma Park and Sheila Ellis Hixson of Silver Spring, convinced Gov. Parris N. Glendening to draw new boundaries to bring Del. John A. Hurson (D-Dist. 18) of Chevy Chase into Dist. 20 and force Dembrow out.

In Annapolis and in Montgomery County, Dembrow cultivates an image as a swashbuckling outsider, frequently going against the grain, bucking leadership and political correctness, arguing picayune points even if it derails major legislation that he theoretically supports. In the redistricting battle, Dembrow has sought to portray himself as a victim of the machinations of scheming political insiders.

Dembrow has used his wife as a political asset in the past. In a legislature full of gray suits, Dembrow stands out, despite being 5-foot-4. He favors crisp pinstriped suits and cowboy boots. Suzette Dembrow, a leggy blonde who is two heads taller than he, has been part of his flamboyant image, and their sexy holiday cards are legendary in political circles.

Choking back tears, Dembrow told The Gazette that he is not thinking about his political future now.

"I'm not focusing on it, to tell you the truth," he said. "It's put things in its proper perspective. I'm more concerned about keeping together my family."