As a state senator, Christopher B. Shank opposed proposals to decriminalize marijuana, thinking that reducing the penalty for possessing small amounts of pot would lead to more teen drug use.
But after pushback from Democratic colleagues, the Republican from rural Maryland looked up drug statistics for states that had passed similar laws. He learned, he said, that he was wrong.
So Shank not only voted for the measure, he spoke in favor of it on the Senate floor.
It was a notable turnaround for the veteran lawmaker, who as minority whip in the House of Delegates had taken almost every opportunity to criticize and vote against policies pushed by the Democratic majority.
But this was the other side of Shank, his Senate colleagues say — the deliberative legislator willing to work on both sides of the aisle. It is that person whom Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has chosen to reach out to a solidly blue legislature that has clashed with the governor repeatedly and defeated most of his legislative proposals since he took office 16 months ago.
Shank, who served in the Senate for four years and in the House for 11 replaced Joseph M. Getty as Hogan’s chief legislative officer after Getty — himself a former legislator — became a judge on the state Court of Appeals.
“I think Chris is going to help,” Hogan said. “He has the experience in both the House and Senate and is well respected by members on both sides of the aisle in both houses. So that’s the more important quality, for a legislative officer to have the ear and the respect of the folks that he has to deal with every day.”
The position is Shank’s third in Hogan’s administration. Now 44, he left his Senate seat to become executive director of the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention in January, 2015. A year later, Hogan tapped him as his deputy chief of staff.
Hogan said Shank demonstrated his ability to bring lawmakers together in that role, by shepherding the state’s sweeping criminal-justice reform bill. Shank chaired the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, a panel of lawmakers, law enforcement officials, state officials and advocates that studied the state’s prison and parole system, and he helped broker a deal between the delegates and senators over which prisoners should be allowed shorter sentences.
“The governor is lucky to have him,” said Sen. Robert Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), who entered the General Assembly with Shank in 1999 and was a member of the justice reform panel. “He’s a star in that administration.”
A fiscal conservative, Shank took a strong stand against many progressive pieces of legislation that were passed during his years in the General Assembly, when Democrat Martin O’Malley was governor. Those included bills banning discrimination against transgender individuals, placing a referendum on the ballot for same-sex marriages, abolishing the death penalty and raising the minimum wage.
Shank said his stances on those issues no longer matter, since his new role is “exclusively to support and advocate for [the governor’s] policies and priorities.”
Before pursuing a career in politics, Shank worked as a life and health insurance agent. After becoming a lawmaker, he worked as an adjunct instructor at some community colleges and taught at George Washington University, where he earned a master’s degree in political management. For a year, just before his move to join the administration, he was the executive director of Justice Fellowship Network, a grass-roots organization that is part of the faith-based Prison Fellowship.
But Shank, who is a married father of three, says he always wanted to work in the governor’s office, ever since landing a summer internship after his junior year at Johns Hopkins University working in the programs office for then-Gov. William D. Schaefer. He said he was hooked after seeing the crusty Democrat’s “passion for government service.”
Shank worked for Republican Helen Bentley’s gubernatorial primary campaign in 1994, passing up a chance to join the congressional campaign of then-Del. Robert L. Erhlich in hopes of landing a position with the state’s next governor.
When Bentley lost the primary, Shank found a different way to work in Annapolis, as a legislative aide to the Washington County delegation in the state house.
He became part of the delegation in 1999, narrowly defeating Democrat Bruce Poole by 247 votes (Poole chairs the state Democratic Party). In 2010, he successfully challenged Sen. Donald F. Munson (R-Washington County), arguing that the moderate Republican was too liberal and did not represent his constituency. Shank said that he differed with Munson, who was a member of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, on his support of O’Malley’s budget plans.
Shank’s local paper, the Herald-Mail, backed Munson, saying Shank had been a “partisan bomb thrower” in the House. But Shank became more conciliatory once in the Senate, former colleagues say, working across the aisle on a variety of issues.
“He was partisan, but I think that was a much a function of the position he had as minority whip,” said Del. Derek Davis (D-Prince George’s). A firebrand “indicates that’s all you bring to the table, stirring the pot and rhetoric. . . . With Chris, you always had to be on your game because he was going to be on his.”
Shank, who with his family is moving from Hagerstown to Calvert County, said it was an easy decision to switch from the legislative branch to the executive branch after Hogan’s underdog 2014 victory.
“I had been waiting on a personal level 20 years for the opportunity to work for a governor,” he said.