A quieter, more careful GOP

Republicans retool their strategy in a new political landscape

General Assembly

April 15, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr., the outspoken conservative known for his flamethrower remarks on gay marriage, immigration, abortion and other causes of the right, got a rare smattering of applause from Democrats when he stood on the House floor this year and croaked out an apology for having lost his voice.

The Anne Arundel Republican was referring to a case of actual laryngitis, but he and the other members of his party on the front lines in a nasty four-year partisan war in Annapolis lost their voices this year in a more fundamental way as well.

Out was the vituperative rhetoric they used to carry Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s message to the legislature's floor, and in was the measured, moderate tone of a minority willing to be a part of the cooperation and consensus preached by new Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley.

"Our thinking was that we had to be very judicious in picking our battles, that they needed to be founded in policy differences, more so than in political differences, and that we had to be very careful to be respectful in our tone," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority leader. "That old model ... of trying to be just bomb throwers would no longer work."

If the goal was pats on the back from Democrats, then the Republicans were wildly successful.

In the days since the legislative session ended, O'Malley has praised the abilities of legislators of both parties to agree when possible and to "disagree in a way that made people proud." House Speaker Michael E. Busch led ovations of the Republican leaders in his chamber on the closing night of the session and later praised the GOP for its ability "to tone down the adversarial rhetoric."

The broadest praise came from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, as partisan a Democrat as there is in Annapolis.

"The minority contributed in many, many, many ways, and they had the input. We want to thank them very much," Miller said in the final minute of the General Assembly session as a 15-second swell of applause filled the chamber.

But Republicans had mixed feelings about how their overtures of cooperation were received. They won some battles - notably, pressuring for the enactment of tougher penalties for sex offenders, known as "Jessica's Law," and helping block in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.

At other times - for example, in the final hours of the General Assembly session when Democrats allowed them only 7 1/2 minutes to debate a domestic partnership bill - they felt left out, their good will abused by Democratic leaders.

"I thought the session started out with great optimism and hope," said Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, the minority whip from Howard County. "I really thought we would have the opportunity to participate and be included. I think we were in some things, but I have to admit, the way the session ended was not a good feeling for me."

Ehrlich's defeat in November - compounded by a loss of legislative seats - sparked heated leadership fights in the Republican caucuses of both the Senate and House of Delegates, both of which shaped up as a debate over the direction the party should take in opposing the Democrats. On one side were lawmakers known for an aggressive, confrontational style, and on the other were those seen as more committed to working within the system.

The outgoing GOP governor left no doubt about his preference. Although he didn't explicitly back anyone in the leadership races, he made clear that he wanted the Republicans to fight - a comment perceived as a veiled endorsement of the combative Sen. Andrew P. Harris of Baltimore County.

The Senate caucus deadlocked for weeks but ultimately rejected Ehrlich's advice, opting for Sen. David R. Brinkley, a conservative but low-key Republican from Frederick County, as minority leader, and the similarly tempered Kittleman as whip.

The best example of how they would lead the caucus came on the day the Senate debated O'Malley's $30 billion budget plan. With a budget deficit of as much as $1.5 billion predicted for next year and talk of tax increases in the air, Republicans made a push for deep spending cuts now to lessen the pain in the future.

Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, Brinkley's predecessor as leader, shared the details of the GOP proposal with O'Malley that morning as a courtesy, and on the Senate floor, the Republicans made a five-part presentation of their plan.

The Democrats fought back and, predictably, united to shoot down the GOP's plan. As debate moved on to the next issue on the agenda, Brinkley quietly slipped out from behind his desk in the front row of the Senate chamber, walked across the room and shook hands with the Democrats who lead the budget committee, whispered a few words and returned to his seat.

"We look at that [debate] as a hallmark of what we have done," Brinkley said last week. "We presented our views without being shrill about it. I hope you'll see some of our ideas come to fruition next year."

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