Md. GOP Seeking to Regain Its Momentum
By Daniel LeDuc
Despite losing seats for the first time in two decades during November's elections, the Republicans vow to continue their calls for deeper tax cuts, to decry what they call excessive spending by Democrats and to demand improvements in education.
The question is whether anybody will notice them.
"Everything that's happening is working against us," acknowledged House Minority Whip Robert L. Flanagan (R-Howard), who saw his party lose six seats in the House. "I expect to be going to Annapolis as Rodney Dangerfield incarnate. It's not an exciting prospect."
In the Senate, the GOP kept its hold on 15 of 47 seats. At least three of those seats are going to far more conservative Republicans than their predecessors were. So the Senate, once a place of political comity, may become more fiercely partisan with Republicans divided on whether that kind of cooperation is good for the party.
The GOP for a century was the silent minority in the Democrat-dominated General Assembly and in a state where current voter registration has Republicans outnumbered 2 to 1. But for 20 years, with small but steady growth in registration, the GOP had been making gains in Maryland's House and Senate and recently was beginning to make itself heard as a true opposition party.
That came to a crashing halt with the November elections, in which Democratic disgust with the U.S. House Republicans' inquiries into President Clinton's personal life resounded through congressional and legislative elections across the country.
"It's going to be a lot more difficult," said House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman (R-Howard). "We were killing stuff [during the last session] by one vote and were winning stuff by one vote in committee."
The loss of Republicans means there will be one fewer GOP member on each standing committee, he said. "That's going to translate into some votes passing that maybe wouldn't have otherwise."
One GOP strategist privately declared: "The House is a lost cause. . . . We're drowning over there."
Although the GOP managed to keep a tenuous hold on its 15 Senate seats, many Republicans are even more worried about their party's future there because of the new hard-line conservatives elected. New party Chairman Richard D. Bennett, who supports abortion rights and gun control, has said that the state GOP must reach out to middle-of-the-road voters if it wants to grow, especially by focusing on fiscal rather than social issues.
Party leaders, including new Senate Minority Leader Martin G. Madden (R-Howard), want to develop an agenda that focuses on accelerating implementation of an approved 10 percent state income tax cut. They plan to fight a state budget that is expected to grow according to signs from Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) by 6.5 percent. That would be the largest spending increase since 1992, when the state was coming out of a recession.
The Republicans also say they want to focus on education, working to earmark the $4.2 billion settlement the state receives from the tobacco industry for education needs. Even as they do, some of the new conservatives in the Senate also hope to push for new abortion restrictions, charter schools and vouchers for private schools.
"We need to have more traditional views of morality," said incoming senator Alexander X. Mooney, of Frederick. He defeated John W. Derr, the former Senate minority whip, during last fall's GOP primary.
The Republicans' Senate leader, F. Vernon Boozer of Baltimore County, also lost in the GOP primary, to physician Andrew P. Harris. Mooney and Harris are joined by Nancy Jacobs, who earned her conservative stripes as a delegate from Harford County.
Boozer and Derr support abortion rights, while Mooney and Harris do not. Although both incoming senators emphasized fiscal concerns as central to their agendas, both also said they wanted to tackle abortion, including public funding for the procedure, and other traditionally conservative issues.
"We have the votes hands down to stop partial-birth abortion, which everybody knows is infanticide," said Mooney, a former Capitol Hill staff member. "We do believe in helping private schools, charter schools, Christian schools, home schools."
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) has supported a ban on the procedure referred to as "partial birth" abortion by opponents, and he said he expected one to pass the General Assembly during the coming session but be vetoed by Glendening. The governor has said he has reservations about such a ban limiting women's legitimate medical needs.
Senate Republicans usually have been more cooperative with the Democratic majority than with their House counterparts. While Madden and Miller have a good rapport, some of the newcomers said they expected Republicans to be more aggressive.
"There is no compromise unless both sides see some light of day. The compromises that have been occurring aren't really compromises," Harris said. "Do Marylanders really want the majority party to squash all debate on policy issues?"
Even Madden, though declining to use the word "confrontational," said he expected Senate Republicans to "take a more formal role this year."
"We will continue to work together" with Democrats, he said. "When it's appropriate, we will play our role of the loyal opposition."
For his part, Miller said he doesn't expect much change in the Senate's tenor. "That they've got three new Gingrich-like Republicans is not going to affect the other 44 members," he said. "It's very hard for a new senator to make major policy."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company