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January 1, 2007

A Battle over Leadership - Part Two

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

With the Senate GOP leadership question settled, all eyes were focused on the House Republican Caucus. Current Minority Whip Tony O'Donnell of Southern Maryland teams with Boonsboro's own Chris Shank for leader and whip.

Their sole opponents were veteran Republican Wade Kach (R., Baltimore Co.) for leader and Michael Smigiel (R., Cecil) for whip.

The Democrats found Tony easy to hate; you might even remember when he was banished to the back of the chamber by Speaker Mike Busch (D., Anne Arundel). Busch thought he was sending Tony a message by forcing him out of the traditional whip's seat at the front of the room. Surprisingly, it had the opposite affect. Tony became a legend, the guy who made Mike Busch so mad that he took it personally, a sure sign of weakness in a legislative body.

The ironic twist is that the guy who had challenged George Edwards, and who had come within a vote or two of actually winning the leader's chair, is the same guy Mike Busch temporarily put in Tony's seat on the chamber floor.

That guy, Delegate Kach, was now running against Delegate O'Donnell for minority leader for the upcoming session. Mr. Kach was very disappointed by his loss in 2004, so much so that he withdrew from most regular caucus business. He made the Invisible Man look high profile by comparison.

Delegate Kach also apparently refused to participate in the caucus slate. Each Republican was asked to make a contribution to help get Republicans elected. We agreed as a group to this commitment, although a number of members felt it inappropriate.

Without commenting on the merit of the strategy, it seems disingenuous to criticize the party-building efforts under Delegate O'Donnell if the critic didn't do their part to assist, but that's just my way of thinking.

Likewise, Delegate O'Donnell has his own negatives. He has a legendary quick temper, and having witnessed it firsthand, I can attest to its ferocity. That temper isn't always a negative, though.

As the whip, there are times when Mr. O'Donnell has had to play the heavy, especially when the Ehrlich agenda was under assault by the Democrat House leadership. Also, George Edwards' personal style tends to be less confrontational, so often Mr. O'Donnell was thrust into the position of being the more vocal of the two.

The big question for the caucus is whether Delegate O'Donnell can keep that temper in check as leader.

The minority whip candidates both come from rural areas, share a similar political philosophy, but are different in terms of their experience.

Delegate Shank, of Washington County, the former assistant minority leader, is known as a top-notch strategic thinker, and has several successful sessions under his belt. He has been a thoughtful and patient teacher, and not just for me. He serves as the chair of the Washington County delegation, so I work with him frequently.

His opponent, Delegate Smigiel, of the Eastern Shore, was a rookie last term. He served on the Judiciary Committee, and was known as someone who was knowledgeable but a little bombastic in his floor speeches. He is a large guy, an ex-Marine who got his law license after he completed his military service.

The two sides were busy making their case for votes among the 38 caucus members. Delegates O'Donnell and Shank argue that their collective experience gives them a tactical advantage. Mr. O'Donnell has been in the center of many of the more important policy debates over the last four years, while Mr. Shank chaired the Policy Committee for the caucus, and as such dealt with the intricacies of policy debates.

Delegates Kach and Smigiel counter that with Kach's long tenure (he is the longest serving Republican member of the House), he is uniquely qualified to serve as the leader. He offered the caucus an agenda, focusing on healthcare choice, paper voting records, public school vouchers, and public safety.

Both were very critical of the strategy to elect more Republicans, citing the loss of six seats as evidence of failure. Given that Delegate O'Donnell was essentially the architect, it seems like a credible position. Unfortunately, as described above, it is hard to critique a plan you refused to participate in when given the chance.

Unlike Senate President Mike Miller (D., Prince George's/Calvert), Speaker Busch basically ignored the minority caucus for four years. At least Senator Miller occasionally threw some crumbs to the other team.

Speaker Busch has indicated that he will push for a more collaborative body if the right team wins the leadership race. He has also hinted that he would allow some input on which committee assignments are made for the Republican members. While he has never specifically mentioned which team he thinks is the right one, I suspect it the team that doesn't include Tony O'Donnell.

This level of commitment is unusual and suggests that an ulterior motive exists.

With the background set, the caucus prepared to choose the leadership team for the next four years. Outgoing Minority Leader Edwards supervised the process, and he conducted the session with his usual down-home grace and dignity.

The session started at 10 A.M., and the two sides were encouraged to answer difficult and probing questions. To list any of those questions and answers here would be a violation of the trust of the other 37 members of the caucus, since everyone promised to keep that debate behind the closed doors of Room 145 in the Lowe House Office Building.

Suffice it to say that no stone was left unturned, and everyone was given a chance to ask whatever questions they thought needed asking. All four gentlemen conducted themselves in the highest traditions of the institution, although things did get pretty heated.

In the end, Tony O'Donnell was elected the minority leader, and Chris Shank was elected minority whip. Delegate O'Donnell joins Senator David Brinkley (the newly elected Senate minority leader) as the policy voice for the 850,000 Maryland voters who expressed their personal preference for Gov. Bob Ehrlich.

The way ahead is murky and complex, and these two gentlemen will need every ounce of their considerable political and personal skill to navigate the next four years.

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