Ending a contentious leadership struggle, Republicans in the Maryland House of Delegates elected by a two-vote margin Del. George C. Edwards as the next minority leader, bypassing a rival whose running mate supports abortion rights.
Edwards, of Garrett County, and his choice for minority whip, Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell of Southern Maryland, narrowly defeated a ticket headed by Del. A. Wade Kach of Baltimore County.
The campaign to lead 43 House Republicans was marked by accusations of mudslinging, including accusations that Kach's running mate, Del. Adelaide C. Eckardt, was unfit to become the minority whip because she supports abortion rights.
Candidates for minority leader teamed with a candidate for minority whip and they ran as a ticket. Eckardt, from the Eastern Shore, was Kach's choice for whip, the post responsible for rallying the caucus and hammering the opposition.
The caucus refused to release the vote tally from the election, which was conducted by secret ballot, but administration officials say Edwards won by two votes.
In the days leading to the vote, the race became heated when some conservative delegates said they could not support Kach because Eckardt voted in 1996 against an amendment to outlaw late-term abortions.
They also questioned Eckardt's Republican credentials by noting she was seen at a fund-raiser for then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a Democrat, last summer.
Supporters of Kach and Eckardt responded by questioning Edward's commitment to low taxes and whether he lived too far away to be an effective leader. But Republicans tried to put that squabbling behind them yesterday and vowed to work tirelessly on behalf of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
"It was a very competitive election, but we are a united caucus," said Edwards, a 21-year veteran. "We have 43 united people, and we feel we are going to be a strong group."
Kach was unavailable to comment after the vote, but Eckardt also tried to play down any division among the caucus.
"People are looking for strong leadership and George and Tony will bring that," Eckardt said.
The election was held to replace Alfred W. Redmer Jr., the former minority leader who Ehrlich tapped as insurance commissioner, and Del. Kenneth D. Schisler, the former minority whip appointed by the governor to head the Public Service Commission.
Ehrlich said high interest in the leadership race "speaks to the new relevancy of Republicans in the General Assembly."
Edwards and O'Donnell will take control of the largest GOP caucus in recent memory. They also must balance the wishes of Ehrlich, who campaigned as a moderate, against the wishes of some of the caucus' more conservative members.
The team also takes the helm at a time when the state Republican Party has been sharply critical of House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, for his opposition to Ehrlich's plan to put slots at Maryland racetracks.
When asked if that animosity will continue, O'Donnell replied, "The fair follow-up question is, will the speaker continue his animosity to the governor's agenda? That will be an indicator to us."
But Edwards and O'Donnell said they are expecting a collegial relationship with the House's Democratic majority.
"The leadership team will pick and choose its battles," O'Donnell said.