- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 19, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Republican General Assembly leaders say they face a bleak year in pressing for slot-machine gambling in the Democrat-controlled legislature.

Tuesday’s session in the House illustrates their challenges. The Democrats rejected rule changes that would have allowed House Republican leaders to make committee selections, and would have allowed Republican staffers to assist lawmakers on the floor.

“Last year was very partisan,” said House Minority Leader George C. Edwards, 56, Garrett County Republican. “This year hopefully isn’t as partisan, but given the way things have started, I am not sure.”

Mr. Edwards noted that his party’s membership has grown in the 22 years he has served in the House — from 16 delegates when he first arrived to 43 today. But Democrats still outnumber Republicans by more than 2-to-1, with 98 delegates.

Mr. Edwards, who owns a gas station/minimart, said Republicans will have to increase their numbers to have a noticeable impact in the legislature.

“I think this state is probably one of the more liberal in the nation,” he said. “But it’s getting better because now we are becoming a two-party state.”

House Minority Whip Anthony J. O’Donnell, 43, of Calvert County, said Republicans have had to battle deliberate distractions from Democratic leaders, noting his own situation.

This year, House Speaker Michael E. Busch moved Mr. O’Donnell, who is entering his second year as a Republican Party leader, from the House’s front row. Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat, also reassigned Mr. O’Donnell from the Judiciary Committee to the Appropriations Committee after Mr. O’Donnell opposed Mr. Busch’s re-election as speaker.

“It’s symbolic more than anything,” said Mr. O’Donnell, a former utility supervisor who has represented Calvert and St. Mary’s counties since 1995. “We have got more important stuff to worry about. It is just a shame to be distracted by such minor and petty things.”

Mr. Busch has killed the slot-machine gambling proposals of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, in the past two sessions.

The House Republican leaders’ sentiments echo in the Republican side of the Senate, where Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus has called the legislature “increasingly left-leaning.”

“I am going easy on legislation this year, recognizing what could be contentious times,” said Mr. Stoltzfus, 55, who represents Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester counties. He has led the chamber’s 13 Republicans since 2001. Democrats — led by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller of Prince George’s County — hold 34 Senate seats and a nearly 3-to-1 margin over their Republican counterparts.

“I want to be optimist,” said Mr. Stoltzfus, a plant-nursery owner, conceding that Democrats can steamroll their agenda “because they are the majority party.”

Senate Minority Whip Andrew P. Harris, 47, said Republicans in the General Assembly can best serve their party by supporting Mr. Ehrlich as much as possible.

“As a caucus, we have not historically developed caucus initiatives,” said Mr. Harris, an anesthesiologist representing Harford and Baltimore counties. “Our role is to support a very popular governor. And he is doing a fine job setting the Republican agenda in this state.”

Mr. Ehrlich has said he will focus on establishing children’s programs and improving the medical-malpractice reform law, which the General Assembly enacted over his veto.

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