House Speaker Michael E. Busch passed over several Baltimore-area aspirants yesterday and named Del. Norman H. Conway, a genial and soft-spoken Eastern Shore lawmaker, to the powerful post held for the past decade by the city's Del. Howard P. Rawlings.
Busch's move was a victory for rural Democrats but a disappointment for Mayor Martin O'Malley and others who hoped to keep the chairmanship of the House Appropriations Committee in the hands of a Baltimore legislator after Rawlings' death eight days ago.
The speaker said he considered giving the job to Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a veteran Baltimore legislator who also sought the post. But Busch said he decided he needed her to remain as chairwoman of the Environmental Matters Committee.
Conway, vice chairman under Rawlings since 1995, is widely viewed as a loyal team player who has paid his dues. While he lacks his predecessor's charisma, the former elementary school principal is admired for stepping up to shepherd the budget to passage when Rawlings' health faltered toward the end of this year's session.
"Norman is viewed by everyone -- I mean everyone -- as being a man of integrity, hard work, dedication," Busch said. "He has the respect of everyone."
Busch said he informed O'Malley of his decision before the announcement. "I promised the mayor I would not let any of the stature or influence of Baltimore decline while I am speaker," he said.
O'Malley said he was disappointed that the city did not keep the chairmanship but did not protest Busch's choice.
"I know Norm Conway, and he understands the importance of Baltimore to the state's economy. And I look forward to working with him," the mayor said.
Conway, 61, a Salisbury native who has represented the Lower Shore since 1987, said he is eager to meet with O'Malley to discuss city priorities. He pointed to a record that includes support for Baltimore's stadiums and increased aid for city schools.
"As a rural legislator, I have been supportive of major initiatives in the legislature to support the investments in Baltimore revitalization and school system improvement," he said.
To balance his choice of Conway, Busch named Del. Talmadge Branch, a Baltimore Democrat, as vice chairman of the committee. Branch is an African-American. Conway is white.
Also yesterday, Busch named Del. Adrienne A. Jones, a western Baltimore County Democrat with close ties to the city, to the critical post of heading the capital budget subcommittee. Conway had held that post along with his vice chairmanship, but Busch decided to split the roles.
Jones, 49, an African-American who is also speaker pro tem, is a close Busch ally. She is expected to help Busch regain much of the power over capital projects seized by the formidable Rawlings.
Busch's choice of Conway won praise from high-placed aides to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
"Chairman Conway has been very good to work with," said Budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr.. "He is very deliberate in his manner and always focused on sound fiscal policy."
Busch said having a chairmanship was important to the moderate and conservative Democrats who represent Maryland's more rural counties.
As recently as 2001, rural House Democrats held the speaker's office and two standing committee chairmanships. After Busch succeeded former Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., he pushed aside the remaining rural chairmen, leaving bruised feelings in the right wing of his party.
"To make the rural Democrats feel vested in the overall Democratic agenda and philosophy, they have to play a role," Busch said. He said none of the rural Democrats had threatened to bolt the party but he said he was aware of the possibility.
Busch said he considered moving McIntosh to the Appropriations Committee and elevating Conway to the Environmental Matters Committee chairmanship. But he said such a shift would have worked against his goal of a "progressive" agenda on the environment.
Del. Van T. Mitchell of Charles County said the speaker's move helps his standing among rural Democrats.
"This goes a long way toward making us feel that someone's there and that somebody's at the table," he said.
The decision came a day after Rawlings' funeral. Busch, who said he was lobbied heavily by people outside the House, said he wanted to act quickly to prevent factions from forming.
"I did not want to see it become a divisive issue in the Democratic caucus," he said. "The more you let it go, the more people choose sides."
Busch likened the decision to those he made in his former career as a football coach.
"The kids know who should play," he said, adding that if the coach put someone in the game because of favoritism he would lose the respect of the players.
Branch, 47, said he was pleased with Busch's decision. He said he believed that he, Conway and Jones bring solid experience to the leadership.
"I want to do a good job for the state of Maryland and for the city," Branch said. "This will be an excellent place to begin. I'm just elated. I certainly thought Norman Conway deserved to be chairman. He's worked very hard."
While Branch has been credited with re-energizing the Legislative Black Caucus during his term as its chairman, the third-term legislator has also been criticized for his close ties to lobbyists.
Busch said he was aware of those issues. "That'll be addressed," he said.
Sun staff writers Ivan Penn and Tom Pelton contributed to this article.
Norman H. Conway
Personal: 61 years old. Born in Salisbury. Holds a master's degree in education administration from Salisbury State College (now Salisbury University). Former elementary school teacher and principal. Married with no children. Volunteer firefighter for 41 years. Political: Democrat who has represented Wicomico and Worcester counties in the House of Delegates since 1987. Vice chairman of Appropriations Committee since 1995. Chairman of capital budget subcommittee since 1996. Former chairman of the Wicomico and Eastern Shore delegations. Served 13 years on Salisbury City Council, including five as president.