Vovak, GOP activist and Wig Man,' succumbs to cancer
Friends, associates remember candidate for U.S. Senate and Montgomery County executive
Daniel Vovak, the eccentric Republican activist best known for wearing a Colonial-era wig during his U.S. Senate campaign in 2006, died Saturday morning in Rockville.
He was 39.
Vovak, an Ohio native who lived in Bethesda, was diagnosed with a rare form of stage 4 cancer in December and had been in and out of Suburban Hospital in Bethesda in recent months. He spent the final weeks of his life in hospice care at Casey House in Rockville, according to friends.
"He always wanted to touch so many lives and get a lot of people involved," said Lisa R. Neuder, secretary of the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee, on which Vovak served since September. "He really loved Montgomery County and he was proud that this was his home."
Neuder said she visited Vovak at Casey House almost daily and saw him deteriorate in the last two weeks. "The pain really overtook him," she said.
Vovak attended the Maryland Republican Party convention in Ocean City this month and delivered a measured speech urging Republicans to put their differences aside and work toward winning elections.
"It was not easy for him to go there," said Mark Uncapher, Montgomery County Republican Central Committee chairman. "You could see as the day wore on, he was really summoning all his strength in order to be able to participate."
State GOP Chairman Alexander X. Mooney was out of the country, but the party posted word of Vovak's death via Twitter on Monday morning: "Sad news. GOP activist & all around nice guy Daniel Vovak lost his battle with cancer this weekend. Thoughts & prayers for his family."
Vovak irked the GOP establishment by entering the U.S. Senate race in 2006 and being one of the most vocal critics of then-Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who was regarded as the party's best hope of winning the seat. During the campaign, he became known for the powdery coiffure and even appeared on the ballot as "Daniel Wig Man' Vovak." He finished fourth out of 10 candidates, tallying just more than 4,000 votes.
Still, Vovak remained undeterred, appearing at political events and talking up a satirical movie he was producing about the President Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. He unsuccessfully ran for state party chairman in 2009 and launched a blog in February 2010 called Montgomery County Daily that covered a wide range of issues, but mostly focused on local politics.
Shortly thereafter, he announced his campaign for county executive. He would lose the Republican nomination to Douglas E. Rosenfeld by a roughly 2-to-1 ratio. But he also won an at-large seat on the GOP central committee in the same election and immediately became engaged, Uncapher said.
"Despite his illness, he really made a special effort right up to the very end to try to be an active member," he said.
But Vovak's unconventional style also led to strained relations with some GOP activists.
Brian Griffiths, a national committeeman for the Maryland Young Republicans and a contributor to the Red Maryland blog, recalled having several run-ins with Vovak and writing some abrasive posts about him during the 2006 campaign that questioned his commitment to the party.
In recent months, Griffiths said, he and Vovak reconciled their differences and he appreciated the unique way in which Vovak sought publicity.
"I didn't always agree with what he did but I think, at the end of the day, he meant well and brought a color and a flavor that a lot of other folks would not be willing to bring," he said. "His voice on the scene will be missed."
Many of Vovak's friends gathered last week to celebrate his 39th birthday, knowing it could be the last time they saw him.
His willingness to go against the establishment when he thought it necessary showed how strongly he believed in his views, said Rachael R. Gingrich, an at-large Montgomery County Republican Central Committee member.
"I'm blessed that I got the opportunity to know the man behind the wig," she said. "His antics were always a way of getting the message out as best he knew how. Some of them rubbed people the wrong way, but he's the nicest person you'll ever meet and was fiercely loyal to his friends."
Another friend and party activist, William T. "Rex" Reed IV, who lives in Potomac, said Vovak's quirks and tactics to gain attention were often misunderstood.
"He was a real character. He was full of energy and ideas," said Reed, noting that Vovak had toned down his rhetoric since being diagnosed with cancer. "He thought outside the box, and every once in a while he came up with some real good ideas."
Citing federal privacy laws, a spokeswoman for Casey House said she could not confirm whether Vovak had died or had even lived at the hospice facility.
Funeral arrangements were unavailable at press time, but Neuder, who was in touch with Vovak's girlfriend, said no services were planned in the Washington, D.C., area. His family plans to hold the funeral in Ohio, she said.