Kittleman is struggling as House GOP leader

March 27, 1995|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

Robert Harvey Kittleman, neophyte minority leader of the Maryland House of Delegates, utters an audible sigh as he leaves the weekly meeting of the 41-member Republican caucus. "It's pandemonium," he says. "Really tough. We have to decide which way to go."

He's talking about strategies Republicans should take in the 141-seat House, where they're heavily outnumbered. But he also could be talking about surviving as minority leader beyond this legislative session.

Survival was never supposed to be an issue. After eight years as understudy to former minority leader and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the 69-year-old Howard County cattle farmer and retired Westinghouse engineer was supposed to move in easily as head of the GOP caucus.

Yet in December, he had to fight off a stiff challenge from Del. George C. Edwards, a 46-year-old four-term delegate from Garrett County. He was elected minority leader by only one vote.

The undercurrents leading to that challenge still swirl. More aggressive caucus members want Mr. Kittleman to be more partisan -- to nettle the Democrats at every opportunity -- to lay the foundation for more Republican gains in 1998.

GOP newcomers, such as first-term legislator Nancy Jacobs of Harford County, say they want a show of Republican muscle. And newcomers outnumber veterans in the caucus, 2 to 1. Ms. Jacobs says she'll support Mr. Kittleman every way she can, but "having 41 Republicans in the House is a lot different" from having just 25 last year.

"The numbers are almost there" to make Republicans a powerful force, she says. "We want a lot of guidance and leadership and have not received as much as we would like. It's a learning process for him, and it's a learning process for us. He's got to figure it out."

It was the Republican caucus that kept the heat on House Democrats to push for a personal income tax cut this year, prompting House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. to press hard for some sort of reduction. But the effort fell short. The governor, the speaker and the Senate president agreed last week to postpone a cut until next year.

Mr. Kittleman acknowledges he's struggling. "It's the first year ever that we've tried to exert influence," he says. "I don't have the proper method, the proper tactics. We're going to have to play our way through it."

Though Mr. Kittleman has been an avowedly partisan promoter of GOP interests throughout his career, he seems a bit uncomfortable with the in-your-face style practiced by his predecessor, Mrs. Sauerbrey, and pushed by some caucus members. He tends to listen more than he speaks and looks for ways to achieve consensus -- a trait he shares with Speaker Taylor, but which he cannot exploit for fear of being branded a collaborator with the enemy.

"We have enough people to be considered, but not to do much," he explains. "Having 41 people . . . still doesn't equate to control. This is still the seventh most lopsided legislature in the nation."

At times, he has irked fellow legislators by seeking term limits and by repaying lobbyists for meals. Senate Minority Leader John A. Cade once publicly accused him of "harassing the legislative process."

Mr. Kittleman doesn't take offense. Senator Cade of Anne Arundel County has "always been more accommodating to the Democrats," Mr. Kittleman says. "And nobody is more effective. He is the most influential senator in Maryland. His way and my way are both legitimate, just different."

For many Republicans, it may not be different enough. Some say they are looking to Delegate Edwards -- or possibly others -- to hone the Republican attack. But Mr. Edwards, who serves as Mr. Kittleman's assistant minority whip, says that "unless there's a groundswell, I don't see a whole lot of change."

He and Mr. Kittleman "disagree on the approach, not the issues," Mr. Edwards says. "I'm not putting out anything. But we vote [on the leadership] each year and some members may have a change of opinion."

Del. Louise V. Snodgrass, a first-term Republican from Frederick County, says the close contest between Mr. Kittleman and Mr. Edwards had more to do with territory than style. Rural delegates like herself and Mr. Edwards are seeking more of a voice in Annapolis, she says.

Crosscurrents within the GOP caucus are signs of vitality, not divisiveness, Ms. Snodgrass says. She also doubts the Republican leadership will change next year. "In the beginning, I thought there might be a change," she says, "but I don't see that Bob has done anything to make that happen."

Still, his progress is closely monitored by newcomers and veterans alike.

"If he finishes very strong, he shouldn't have a problem," says Martha S. Klima, a Baltimore County delegate in her fourth term. "I think he's done a yeoman's job. . . . But with all these freshmen, who knows?"

Ironically, Democrats lavish praise on Mr. Kittleman.

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