Maryland GOP seeking new hook to define itself

Split party takes aim at `reckless spending'

January 28, 2001|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

Six years after reaching their zenith in the 1994 election, Maryland Republicans find themselves a divided, diminished State House minority trying to raise their profile absent the tax-cuts issue that was long their rallying point.

It's not that the party has lost its commitment to cutting taxes, but rather that its General Assembly leadership has come to realize that it lacks the votes for broad new relief. GOP leaders have decided to concentrate instead on fiscal restraint, an issue they must share with Democrats.

"We only have so much attention that we can grab, and we think we are serving the public better by putting the spotlight on reckless spending" by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, said Del. Robert L. Flanagan, the House minority whip.

Without its signature cause, the party may find it harder to define itself during the legislative session in a way that clearly sets its members apart from Democrats.

State Republicans are still reeling from President Bush's 17 percentage-point loss in Maryland on election night -- a more lopsided defeat than expected. And a poll for The Sun released this month showed that less than a third of Marylanders favor using the budget surplus to cut their taxes, while a majority back a liberal agenda supportive of Glendening's stances on gay rights, additional mass transit funding and other issues.

GOP hard-liners in the State House say the party has been slow to outline its competing agenda and that its members are becoming lost in a sea of Democrats, who control 106 of 141 seats in the House of Delegates and 34 of 47 in the Senate. That's a drop of six Republicans in the House and two in the Senate since the watershed year of 1994, when conservative Ellen R. Sauerbrey came within 5,993 votes of defeating Glendening.

Republican divisions over how best to make up the lost ground have been apparent since Jan. 10, opening day of the 90-day legislative session. A group of GOP senators, smarting from last year's unconventional tactics by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller to bring the governor's gun-safety bill to the floor, decided to protest his re-election as the chamber's leader -- a vote that by tradition is unanimous.

But the Republicans couldn't quite decide how far to go.

Three members voted against Miller, their preferences signaled by red lights appearing next to their names on an electronic tote board. Six voted for Miller -- green lights. And four abstained -- no lights at all. It ended up a fractured semi-protest.

Sen. Timothy R. Ferguson, a Carroll County Republican and one of the three who voted "no," says he fears the party is losing its edge. "If you don't give yourself a label, then your opponents will do it for you," he said.

Republicans in Annapolis are hardly the first political minority at odds over tactics. Until gaining control of Congress in 1994, the GOP fought years of internal battles over whether to challenge the Democratic majority at every turn or to act more quietly within the system to try to get pieces of its agenda passed.

Former U.S. Rep. Robert S. Walker, a Pennsylvania Republican, says his party took over Congress only after specifically outlining priorities -- including tax cuts and term limits -- in a campaign document called the "Contract with America." The party also benefited that year from a wave of sentiment against former President Bill Clinton.

Maryland Republicans piggybacked on the national party themes of 1994 with a "Contract with Maryland" endorsing an income tax cut -- an idea that the Democratic-controlled legislature approved three years later. The state GOP picked up six seats in the Senate in the 1994 election and 16 in the House.

"If you're in the minority, your first goal is to become the majority. It's the only thing worthy of your time," Walker says. "If you're close to the majority, then some cooperation may be useful because you can get some positions of your agenda put into bills.

"But if you're a fairly small minority, then you probably want to find some stark differences between you and the people in control so it's clear there is a real choice."

One of the Republicans' problems in Maryland is that there is no clear GOP gubernatorial candidate for 2002 from which the party can take its cues. Another is that Glendening will play a large role in redrawing state legislative districts next year to conform with the 2000 Census.

The new boundaries are likely to make it even tougher for Republican candidates, and some GOP incumbents might decide to go easy on criticizing the governor in hopes of winning better treatment.

In the early days of the Assembly session, Democrats have practically made a sport of poking fun at Republicans for seeming not to have an original message.

"They're trying to make friends now, not enemies. It's called defensive politics," says House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. of Allegany County.

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