Harris rising through state's sparse GOP ranks

TAMPA, Fla. — — He's a rookie in Congress, but Rep. Andy Harris is positioned to become a GOP heavyweight in Maryland.

As delegates from across the country converge at the Republican National Convention this week to nominate Mitt Romney for president, the first-term lawmaker from Cockeysville is the state's highest-ranking elected official to attend. And while his role will be limited — he is not a delegate — his efforts at getting fellow state Republicans elected in November have been extensive.


"Andy has paid his dues," said Louis Pope, the Republican national committeeman from Maryland who has arranged to have Harris speak to the state's delegation Wednesday. "And Andy will be here for many years to come."

The 55-year-old anesthesiologist has Democrats to thank in part for his solid political footing. When the General Assembly redrew the state's congressional districts last year, Democratic leaders stuffed thousands of new GOP voters into the traditionally Republican 1st Congressional District.


The district includes the Eastern Shore and portions of Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties.

Internal shifts in the state's GOP also have worked to Harris' advantage. One of Maryland's Republican stalwarts, Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, faces an uphill re-election this year. And another, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., is focusing less on state politics as he engages more at the national level.

Ehrlich is in Tampa for the Romney campaign but has not had much interaction with Maryland lawmakers and party officials here.

National Republican leaders suspended the convention schedule for Monday as Tropical Storm Isaac churned off the coast of Florida, leaving delegations without any official responsibilities. The program picks back up Tuesday, however, and includes speeches by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Romney's wife, Ann. The convention runs through Thursday, when Romney will formally accept the nomination.

Bartlett, a 10-term incumbent, announced last month that he would not attend the convention. Harris, who was an early supporter of Newt Gingrich for president, will speak to both the Maryland and Puerto Rico delegations this week. Harris' wife was raised in Puerto Rico.

In contrast to Bartlett — and, for that matter, most members of Congress — Harris has kept a toe in state politics as he serves in Congress. The former state senator was a vocal critic of toll increases approved by the Maryland Transportation Authority last year. More recently, he has pushed his supporters to oppose state ballot initiatives in November on same-sex marriage and expanded gambling.

"He's been a very strong supporter of all the things the state party is doing," said Diana Waterman, an at-large delegate to the convention from Queen Anne's County who also is a vice chair of the Maryland GOP. "Andy is already taking a leadership role in the state."

But Ehrlich said it's too early to anoint Harris as the face of the Maryland GOP.


"I think the Bartlett race is going to be close. Do not write him off. Do not write Roscoe Bartlett off," Ehrlich said in an interview before leaving Maryland for Florida. "So I think it's very premature, that question."

During last year's special session of the General Assembly, many Annapolis Republicans complained Bartlett was not actively engaged in opposing the new congressional maps. Bartlett said that taking on the Democrats who control the State House would have been a lost cause. Instead, he helped raise money for an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the new maps.

Harris, meanwhile, has been heavily engaged in the race for Maryland's 2nd Congressional District, currently held by Democratic Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger. Harris was an early supporter of Republican state Sen. Nancy Jacobs' campaign to unseat Ruppersberger and has appeared frequently at her events.

Ruppersberger is likely to win the race, but Republicans are waiting to see how big a dent Jacobs can make in his margin of victory.

Harris, who also has campaigned for Bartlett, said recruitment and fundraising are among his top priorities.

"We are obviously building a farm team," Harris said when asked how he sees his role in Maryland evolving over the next several years. "The most important thing is for us to unify around a principled message, and I think that message will be clear in 2014."


Harris has had his share of missteps. Most notably, he complained in a private orientation for new lawmakers last year that his congressional health care plan did not kick in on his first day in office. Harris had focused his 2010 campaign on repealing President Barack Obama's health care law.

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And his Democratic opponent this year, Baltimore County businesswoman Wendy Rosen, has argued for months that Harris has veered so far right that he no longer represents the largely centrist Republican voters that make up his district and much of Maryland. As a member of the unusually powerful Republican freshmen class in the House, Harris has pursued an anti-regulation agenda.

"Harris has consistently taken political positions that put him at odds with environmentalists, women, and seniors," said Rebecca Scott, Rosen's campaign manager, in a statement. "This extremism is well documented both in his time in D.C. and his time in Annapolis."

Still, Harris beat incumbent Democrat Frank Kratovil in 2010 by a 12 percentage-point margin.

"He's articulate, he's good-looking, he's mature and he's not a neophyte," said Audrey Scott, a former state GOP chairwoman who also is a convention delegate for Romney. "He's a wonderful representative for the party."

Baltimore Sun reporter Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this article.