A quieter, more careful GOP

The Baltimore Sun

Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr., the outspoken conservative known for his flamethrower remarks on gay marriage, immigration, abortion and other causes of the right, got a rare smattering of applause from Democrats when he stood on the House floor this year and croaked out an apology for having lost his voice.

The Anne Arundel Republican was referring to a case of actual laryngitis, but he and the other members of his party on the front lines in a nasty four-year partisan war in Annapolis lost their voices this year in a more fundamental way as well.

Out was the vituperative rhetoric they used to carry Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s message to the legislature's floor, and in was the measured, moderate tone of a minority willing to be a part of the cooperation and consensus preached by new Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley.

"Our thinking was that we had to be very judicious in picking our battles, that they needed to be founded in policy differences, more so than in political differences, and that we had to be very careful to be respectful in our tone," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority leader. "That old model ... of trying to be just bomb throwers would no longer work."

If the goal was pats on the back from Democrats, then the Republicans were wildly successful.

In the days since the legislative session ended, O'Malley has praised the abilities of legislators of both parties to agree when possible and to "disagree in a way that made people proud." House Speaker Michael E. Busch led ovations of the Republican leaders in his chamber on the closing night of the session and later praised the GOP for its ability "to tone down the adversarial rhetoric."

The broadest praise came from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, as partisan a Democrat as there is in Annapolis.

"The minority contributed in many, many, many ways, and they had the input. We want to thank them very much," Miller said in the final minute of the General Assembly session as a 15-second swell of applause filled the chamber.

But Republicans had mixed feelings about how their overtures of cooperation were received. They won some battles - notably, pressuring for the enactment of tougher penalties for sex offenders, known as "Jessica's Law," and helping block in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.

At other times - for example, in the final hours of the General Assembly session when Democrats allowed them only 7 1/2 minutes to debate a domestic partnership bill - they felt left out, their good will abused by Democratic leaders.

"I thought the session started out with great optimism and hope," said Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, the minority whip from Howard County. "I really thought we would have the opportunity to participate and be included. I think we were in some things, but I have to admit, the way the session ended was not a good feeling for me."

Ehrlich's defeat in November - compounded by a loss of legislative seats - sparked heated leadership fights in the Republican caucuses of both the Senate and House of Delegates, both of which shaped up as a debate over the direction the party should take in opposing the Democrats. On one side were lawmakers known for an aggressive, confrontational style, and on the other were those seen as more committed to working within the system.

The outgoing GOP governor left no doubt about his preference. Although he didn't explicitly back anyone in the leadership races, he made clear that he wanted the Republicans to fight - a comment perceived as a veiled endorsement of the combative Sen. Andrew P. Harris of Baltimore County.

The Senate caucus deadlocked for weeks but ultimately rejected Ehrlich's advice, opting for Sen. David R. Brinkley, a conservative but low-key Republican from Frederick County, as minority leader, and the similarly tempered Kittleman as whip.

The best example of how they would lead the caucus came on the day the Senate debated O'Malley's $30 billion budget plan. With a budget deficit of as much as $1.5 billion predicted for next year and talk of tax increases in the air, Republicans made a push for deep spending cuts now to lessen the pain in the future.

Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, Brinkley's predecessor as leader, shared the details of the GOP proposal with O'Malley that morning as a courtesy, and on the Senate floor, the Republicans made a five-part presentation of their plan.

The Democrats fought back and, predictably, united to shoot down the GOP's plan. As debate moved on to the next issue on the agenda, Brinkley quietly slipped out from behind his desk in the front row of the Senate chamber, walked across the room and shook hands with the Democrats who lead the budget committee, whispered a few words and returned to his seat.

"We look at that [debate] as a hallmark of what we have done," Brinkley said last week. "We presented our views without being shrill about it. I hope you'll see some of our ideas come to fruition next year."

In the House, Republicans took what appeared to be the opposite approach when they chose their leaders. They elevated O'Donnell, who as minority whip had been Ehrlich's strongest spokesman in the legislature, to minority leader. With him, they elected as minority whip Del. Christopher B. Shank, a bright young conservative from Western Maryland, bypassing candidates who had pledged a more cooperative attitude with Democrats.

Despite his reputation as a partisan, O'Donnell struck a noticeably moderate tone this year, tempering his criticism of the majority party in a way he did not during Ehrlich's term. He said the change was a conscious response to the different political landscape in Annapolis.

Even some of the most confrontational conservatives reined in their rhetoric.

"Over the years I've alienated a lot of folks I didn't need to alienate, and it took me some time to realize that," said Dwyer, who barely squeaked back into office with a 25-vote margin. "My plan going into this session was I didn't want to do that. I wanted to try to build alliances where I could."

Republicans in both chambers said they believe their participation helped make the difference in preventing a number of bills they objected to from becoming law, notably an increase in the tobacco tax to fund a health care expansion, the establishment of new development fees to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and the extension of in-state tuition to illegal immigrants.

"For an impossible situation, they're doing fine," Ehrlich said recently. "They're trying like heck, and when they have the opportunity, they're effective."

GOP legislators also reported some encouraging signs in their relationship with the new governor. O'Malley called the newly elected leaders in both chambers to congratulate them, and he has subsequently met with them on a number of occasions.

But in other cases, Republicans felt ignored. O'Donnell pointed to the Democrats' plan to move the state's presidential primary to mid-February as an example of an issue on which the minority party should have been consulted.

In the next year, the stakes in Annapolis are expected to get much higher and the debates more intense as legislators seek a solution to a persistent gap between revenues and spending.

Kevin Igoe, a GOP consultant, said that if Republican legislators stick with the strategy they used this year, they can use that debate to set up the party for greater success in the 2010 election.

"That's going to be a further opportunity for them to clearly draw the differences between the parties on what is a long-standing and major difference in the area of taxes," Igoe said.

Although it didn't always work, Republicans said they'll keep up with their strategy because they really have no other choice.

"I don't think I would do anything differently," Kittleman said. "I think we just need to be firm in our principles like I think we did this year. We're just hoping to have a little more opportunity to debate. ... We represent a lot of people in Maryland, and those people need to have a voice."

andy.green@baltsun.com

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