By Ann E. Marimow and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 19, 2011; B08
The ranking Republican in the Maryland Senate surprised his colleagues and the GOP establishment Tuesday when he announced that he will step down as minority leader because it had become apparent his colleagues did not want a "social moderate" as their leader.
The decision by Sen. Allan H. Kittleman (R-Howard County) came two weeks after he announced plans to sponsor legislation allowing civil unions in Maryland for both same-sex and heterosexual couples.
Kittleman's position put him at odds with many Republican colleagues, who told him during a closed-door meeting last week that they were distressed by his civil-unions bill and would not be supporting the legislation, according to participants.
Kittleman said he decided over the weekend that the other 11 GOP senators in the 47-member Senate should have a leader who is "more conservative than I am on social issues."
"I don't want to have them worry every time I get on the floor, 'What is he going to say?' " Kittleman explained, adding that the decision gives him "the freedom to be who I am, to champion issues I really care about without worrying about stepping on anyone's toes."
His decision comes as the state Republican Party is at a crossroads after Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s double-digit defeat in his November rematch with Gov. Martin O'Malley (D). In December, the party elected former senator Alex X. Mooney as its chairman, choosing a conservative over the more-moderate Mary D. Kane, who was Ehrlich's running mate.
But on Tuesday, in a phone call to the senator and a statement to the media, Mooney urged Kittleman to reconsider his decision.
"While Republicans in elected office and Republican voters at the grassroots level will not agree on every issue," Mooney said in the statement, Kittleman's overall record fits "well within the values of the Republican Party."
Towson University professor Richard E. Vatz, who is close to Ehrlich, said that in a state where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans 2 to 1, the GOP must decide, "Do you want to be ideologically pure or electorally viable?"
Vatz, who teaches political rhetoric, said Kittleman's decision to step down was wise if he has aspirations to run statewide or countywide in 2014. In Kittleman's back yard of Howard, O'Malley won 54 percent of the vote. His district - which also includes part of Carroll County - favored Ehrlich, according to an analysis by the Maryland State Board of Elections.
"Having gratuitous fights would simply wreck the party at this point and is not in his interest," Vatz said. "That's not the role that wins people over to the Republican side."
Kittleman is the son of the late civil rights activist Robert Kittleman, who was minority leader in the House and head of the Howard County NAACP.
The legislation the younger Kittleman is considering would give heterosexual and same-sex couples joined through civil unions the same benefits as married partners but would "protect the rights of religious institutions to define marriage as they choose." His effort comes as the prospects for legalizing same-sex marriage in Maryland appear to have significantly improved since the November election.
Kittleman said in an interview Tuesday that having the freedom to speak about his support for civil unions sends a signal to residents that "there are Republicans in Maryland who support these issues. . . . We are more of a big tent than people sometimes think."
Kittleman, who has been minority leader for two years, stressed that his colleagues did not pressure him or ask him to resign. "No one encouraged him to step down nor did we expect him to step down. He has been an excellent Minority Leader," Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R-Harford) said in an e-mail.
He will officially step down once a new leader is selected, which could happen Friday.
Minority Whip David R. Brinkley (R-Frederick), the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said he is interested in the job. Jacobs, a former minority whip, said she has not yet decided whether to seek the position.