Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. waded yesterday into a difficult debate among Republican legislators on how to maintain relevance in Annapolis, saying he hopes they will stand in opposition to Democrats rather than trying to work with the majority party.
Ehrlich, Maryland's first Republican governor in a generation, has kept a low profile since he and other members of his party suffered severe election losses a month ago. But yesterday, he told members of the Republican caucus in the House of Delegates that they are now the leaders of the state party and must work to keep the Maryland GOP alive until new statewide leaders can emerge.
"No one else is there," he said after the closed-door meeting. "The backup is not coming."
Ehrlich's appearance came on the same day that Republican state senators met to pick new leadership. The 14-member caucus took repeated votes for several hours in the afternoon and evening in a choice between leaders who would strike a confrontational tone with Democrats and others who are seen as more conciliatory.
Last night they still had not made a decision between Sen. Andrew P. Harris of Baltimore County, known for his outspoken advocacy for Republican causes, and Sen. David P. Brinkley, who represents Carroll and Frederick counties and is typically more low-key.
A similar battle is underway in the House, where the current minority whip, Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell of Southern Maryland, is being challenged in his attempt to move into the vacant minority leader seat by Del. A. Wade Kach, a Baltimore County Republican who has promised a more cooperative caucus in hopes of having influence in the shaping of policy.
Democrats in the new legislature will outnumber Republicans 104-37 in the House and 33-14 in the Senate, meaning that the majority party will have little obligation to consult with the minority, especially when Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, takes office.
Ehrlich said he told the caucus that he would support it in whatever leadership choice it made, and he didn't explicitly endorse candidates.
But he has said he believes one of the most important things he did as governor was to bring debate to Annapolis and to break up what he calls the "monopoly" that ran the state for years. He said he wants to see that legacy continue.
"One choice is acquiescence, a `go along to get along' model, and the other is loyal opposition, `we believe in what we believe in,'" Ehrlich said. "I hope they choose Option B. I believe competition in the marketplace of ideas is good for the state."
Both contenders in the leadership fight said they thought the governor was endorsing their approach.
"He feels as I do, that we need to continue to push our agenda," Kach said.
O'Donnell said he is the one who would best accomplish what the governor suggested.
"We have to be strategic in our resolve, clear in our message but certainly not co-opted for some small favor from the majority," he said. "That's not why we were sent here."
The House GOP caucus is set to vote on its leaders Dec. 19. O'Donnell is running with Del. Christopher B. Shank of Western Maryland as a candidate for whip, and Kach's running mate is Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. of Cecil County. O'Donnell said he expects a long debate.
The House Democratic caucus also met yesterday. They re-elected House Speaker Michael E. Busch of Anne Arundel County and Speaker Pro Tempore Adrienne A.W. Jones of Baltimore County in quick, unanimous votes.