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June 19, 2003

Leadership Change A Ticklish Situation

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

The stakes are never higher than when every single vote counts. Today, the Republican Caucus of the House of Delegates met to elect a new Minority Leader and Minority Whip.

The election of the party leadership was prompted by some major promotions. Delegate Al Redmer (R., Baltimore Co.), our former leader, was appointed by Governor Robert Ehrlich to fill the position of Insurance Commissioner of Maryland. The Insurance Commissioner is charged with the regulatory oversight of the health insurance industry in our state (and he’s paid $125k for his effort).

Even the Democrats had to acknowledge that Delegate Redmer was a great choice. A colleague on the Health & Government Operations Committee, Shane Pendergrass (D., Howard), opined that Al was the perfect choice given it “had to be a Republican”.

Delegate Pendergrass is another example of a high profile Maryland Democrat living smack in the middle of an Egyptian river. That’s right, DE-NIAL.

Commissioner Redmer wasn’t the only significant legislative recruitment. Del. Ken Schisler (R., Eastern Shore and Minority Whip) was tapped to succeed Cathy Reilly as chair of the very powerful Public Service Commission.

The two gents pulled together a Republican Caucus that has risen from a low of sixteen members to the current record high of forty-three. A decision to replace them with a new leadership team was a sensitive and risky proposition.

According to the rules of our Caucus, the Minority Leader and Whip must run together as a team. As soon as Al’s appointment was given serious media speculation, two leader candidates emerged.

Wade Kach (R., Baltimore Co.) is the longest serving Republican in the House of Delegates. He’s been here 29 years, and has established a reputation as a decent guy who is well respected. Wade serves on the Health and Government Operations Committee, has considerable experience in insurance matters, and led the Policy Team for the Caucus last session.

George Edwards (R., Allegany/Garrett) was the other choice. George chairs the Western Maryland delegation, serves as a subcommittee chairman for the Appropriations Committee (the only Republican so designated), and has been in the House of Delegates for 20 years. George was the second elected official to call and congratulate me after my recent election (the first was Lt. Gov. Michael Steele). George also made it a point to ask how I was doing several times during the session.

George named Tony O’Donnell (R., Southern Maryland) as his Whip nominee very early in the process. Wade hesitated naming a Whip, indicating he wanted to talk to several people about their thoughts and feelings.

The leader is the head of the Republican Party in the House. His primary objective is to successfully shepherd the Governor’s legislative initiatives through the House of Delegates. The Whip, as the name implies, is the heavy hand. Whips who succeed are careful vote counters, keeping tabs on their minions through a group of deputies. I describe them as taking the pulse of the Caucus through their hands clasped around Caucus member’s throats.

A few weeks before today’s Caucus meeting, Wade Kach announced Del. Addie Eckardt (R., Eastern Shore) as his Whip. The announcement had an immediate impact. Addie is a charming, hard working delegate who, as a retired nurse, is an expert on health care issues. She serves on the Appropriations Committee.

Addie’s choice was controversial from two perspectives. Addie is an ardent supporter of a woman’s right to choose on the abortion issue. In fact, Addie cast a NO vote on the partial birth abortion bill several years ago. Addie is also the reason George Edwards lost his last bid for Minority Leader, as she changed her mind and supported another candidate during a previous session.

The media thought that might influence conservatives to avoid the Kach/Eckardt ticket, but that didn’t seem true. In fact, all of the Caucus members received an email from several of our conservative freshmen colleagues indicating that they intended to vote for Wade and Addie.

I found the email a little over the top, and actually wrote a response (which I also sent to all of the Caucus members). In my email, I wondered why they felt it necessary to tell me whom they were voting for when it really didn’t matter to me at all.

While this little email flurry was flying back and forth, delegates were calling one another to see where the votes were. I counted nine calls, spread over six days, from different people testing my resolve.

With the backdrop set, we all assembled in our Caucus room at 10 A.M. this morning. Of the 43 Caucus members, 40 showed up prepared to vote. Ken Schisler, who is still a delegate until July 1, chaired the meeting. He had met with the two camps in advance to set the meeting ground rules. Both sides agreed to a nominating speech and a seconding speech, but no candidate speeches.

After a welcome from newly-minted Insurance Commissioner Redmer, the Caucus staff passed out the secret ballots. I had already marked my vote when Del. Bob Costa (R., Anne Arundel) asked if we were going to hear from the candidates.

Del. Schisler reiterated that the prior agreement prevented that, but the same group responsible for the email I referred to earlier all objected at this point. Del. Mike Smiegel (R., Cecil) cited Rules of Order and insisted on a motion to allow the two Leader candidates to speak to the Caucus. Del. Carmen Amedori (R., Carroll) attempted to amend the motion to allow both the Leader AND the Whip candidates to address the group. The amendment failed, but the primary motion passed by a narrow margin.

George Edwards gave a great speech, addressing many of the concerns raised about his ability to serve as Leader. Wade Kach gave a very good speech thanking Addie Eckardt for joining his ticket, and laying out a program for the Caucus.

I suspect, and have nothing other than intuition to support my theory, that Wade’s supporters had hoped to embarrass George by surprising him with the speech. If that were true, it backfired completely. George gave a great speech, and the applause from around the room was evidence of that success.

The votes were tallied, and the Edwards/O’Donnell team pulled it out in a squeaker. The final official tally was 21-19, but immediately following the vote, some supporters of the losing team suggested a unanimous show of support for our new Leader and Whip. A motion to “certify by acclamation” George Edwards as Leader and Tony O’Donnell as Whip passed with a unanimous vote.

George and Tony are the perfect choice to lead the House Republicans. Between George’s thoughtful manner and Tony’s “bulldog” determination, we’ll have a strong and effective voice in policy debates on the Floor.

The future is bright for the Republican Party in the House of Delegates. We have a great leadership team, we have a number of veteran legislators with outstanding credentials, and we have an ambitious and aggressive group of freshmen eager to make a name for themselves. Additionally, we have a Republican Governor, who is more interested in our opinions than those of the majority.

To my majority party colleagues, I hope they soon find the paddles. They’ll need them as they try to propel their canoe up that Egyptian river, against a tide of popular opinion. The Republican Governor, Senate and House Minority Caucus’ are taking steps immediately to reverse the years of overspending and unaccountability, and Marylanders expect nothing less.

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