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State House press room could be renamed to honor Capital Gazette shooting victims

Maryland’s top political leaders are supporting a plan to rename the State House’s main media work area in honor of the five employees who were killed at The Capital newspaper office last year.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat who represents the Annapolis area, is proposing to honor the victims by renaming the space affectionately known as “the bullpen” or “the press pit.”

“I’d like to dedicate the room for those that lost their life in The Capital shooting and to honor the profession of journalism and those who are dedicated to it,” Busch said in an interview Monday.

On June 28, 2018, a gunman burst into the newspaper’s office on Bestgate Road in Annapolis, killing five employees: Rob Hiaasen, an editor and columnist; Gerald Fischman, the editorial page editor; John McNamara, an editor and longtime sports reporter; Rebecca Smith, a sales assistant; and Wendi Winters, a community news reporter and editor. The man charged with their murders, who had a longstanding, one-sided grudge against the newspaper, is set to stand trial later this year.

Rick Hutzell, editor of The Capital, said he appreciated the effort.

“We continue to be surprised and heartened by the gestures of respect like this for our colleagues,” Hutzell said. “The deaths of Rob, Wendi, Gerald, John and Rebecca represent more than our personal loss. They are a symbol of the sacrifices journalists make every day to do their job.”

The renaming of the room needs approval of the State House Trust, a body that oversees activities in the historic State House building and grounds. Busch said he quickly secured support from a majority of members of the Trust, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and Gov. Larry Hogan, who is represented on the panel by Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford.

“Everybody’s very supportive. Everybody thinks it’s a great idea,” Busch said.

In a statement, Hogan said: “As my hometown paper, I have the greatest respect for the fine journalists and all the men and women who work at the Capital Gazette. Dedicating the press room in the State House is a fitting tribute to the lives and legacies of the five members of our community we lost and has my full support.”

Hogan, a Republican, lived nearby in Edgewater before he was elected governor in 2014.

A spokesman for the Senate president said Miller, a Democrat, fully supported the renaming proposal, too.

Brien Poffenberger, who sits on the State House Trust representing the Maryland Historical Trust, said he also supported the idea. “Such a recognition pays tribute to those who lost their lives and to the legacy of their role in the democratic process,” he said.

Busch said he expected his proposal to “fly through” when the State House Trust held its next meeting in about a month. If it passes, a dedication ceremony could be held near the end of the 90-day General Assembly session in April. The session begins Wednesday.

Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, said the tribute to the slain newspaper employees is fitting.

“We’re very appreciative that the speaker, president and governor are supportive and aware and grieving along with the community, and that they really are placing such an importance on local community journalism,” she said.

The press work room is on the ground floor of the State House and holds a couple of dozen cubby-style desks for journalists from news organizations around the state, such as The Capital, the Frederick News-Post, the Hagerstown Herald-Mail, the Daily Record and others.

Adjacent to the press work room is a room used by the Associated Press, where a plaque hangs in honor of Tom Stuckey, an AP reporter who worked in Annapolis for more than 40 years before retiring in 2006.

The Baltimore Sun uses an office down the hall from the press work room.

The day after the shooting, the governor’s staff placed a copy of The Capital newspaper, flowers and a condolence note on a small table outside the press room. Busch and Miller added notes as well.

Though none of the journalists killed had covered politics at the State House, The Capital is the hometown newspaper for Busch and the capital city.

Busch had personal connections with four of the victims: He had frequently met with Hiaasen and Fischman when he went to the paper for interviews, he enjoyed talking sports with McNamara and he had just spoken with Winters a few days prior for a story she was planning about the State House dome.

“It’s just a real tribute, hopefully that the five members that lost their lives would appreciate as a part of their legacy to the profession of journalism,” Busch said.

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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