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Maryland House Republicans chose a new leadership team Tuesday, electing Dels. Nicholaus Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) and Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore) to be minority leader and minority whip, respectively.
The team replaces Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert, St. Mary’s), who had served as minority leader since 2007, and Del. Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio (R-Mid-Shore), who had been whip since 2011.
O’Donnell said Thursday morning the GOP caucus was narrowly divided in choosing its leadership team, but said he had no hard feelings and understands “these leadership positions are not lifetime positions.
“The caucus decided that it was time to head in a different direction, and I’m OK with that,” O’Donnell said. “I’ve been in the elected leadership for the last 10 years,” first as minority whip, then as minority leader of the House of Delegates. “Sometimes a change in leadership is healthy. … I’m still committed to the Republican cause. I’m proud of the work we did.”
O’Donnell said the number of Republican delegates is at a “modern-day high” of 43 seats following the 2010 election, when he led an effort to successfully pick up six seats.
“In the end, I’ve always tried, usually at my own expense, tried to serve the greater good, and I look forward to” continuing that, he said. “I’m looking forward to continuing to represent the citizens of Calvert and St. Mary’s counties vigorously. … I will continue to be a soldier in the fields.”
“I don’t think this election was any reflection” on O’Donnell and Haddaway-Riccio, Kipke told reporters after the caucus met in Annapolis. “The caucus is faced with a very tough election because of the gerrymandering that took place in the legislature recently, and we believe we have a plan that will best strengthen our caucus members into that election.”
Kipke said he plans greater outreach to center-right organizations throughout the state, such as Americans for Prosperity, Change Maryland and the various Republican central committees around the state to broaden the Republican support.
“We’re going to ask them to help us be messengers to those voters who don’t necessarily follow politics,” Kipke said.
Kipke has served in the General Assembly since 2007, Szeliga since 2011.
The state’s new legislative districts are expected to make the 2014 election difficult for Republicans, with one delegate predicting the GOP could lose as many as 10 of their 43 House seats.
Some delegates were concerned O’Donnell wasn’t taking an active enough role in fundraising and identifying potential Republican candidates, whereas Democrats seemed to be doing the opposite. Party morale has also taken a blow from a series of Democratic policy victories, including an increase in the state’s gas tax and sweeping gun-control reforms.
“It’s family business; we took care of it behind closed doors, and at the end of the day, we are 43 strong members of the minority party,” Szeliga said of the caucus results.
Del. Kathy Afzali (R-Frederick) said the party was unified and ready to move forward, but that members continued to have “tons of respect for Jeannie and Tony.”
GOP officials in Calvert and St. Mary’s counties reflected on O’Donnell’s leadership in Annapolis.
Calvert County Commissioners’ President Pat Nutter (R) said Wednesday he “doesn’t feel good” about O’Donnell’s removal as House minority leader.
“This guy’s done a lot for these counties, and I’m upset about it,” he said.
Nutter said O’Donnell represented Calvert County well and thinks O’Donnell will continue to “push for things that should be done” in the county.
“I think he’s a very strong individual, and I think he’ll represent us 100 percent,” he said.
Commissioner Gerald W. “Jerry” Clark (R) said O’Donnell has been an effective minority leader.
“His leadership at the House for a minority party … has been very admirable and very respectful … of traditions of past minority leaders,” Clark said. “I guess there’s always people in this world that feel they can do a better job. … Time will tell as we go forward.”
Clark said he does not see O’Donnell’s removal having a major effect on Calvert County.
“He’s a good delegate, and I assume he will continue to be one,” Clark said, adding that O’Donnell had “great integrity and great passion” as minority leader.
Commissioner Susan Shaw (R) said she believes O’Donnell’s removal is not a reflection on the job he’s done as minority leader but, rather, of people “wanting a fresh perspective and wanting to change things up.”
When someone remains in the same position for a long period of time, “you start to lose new ideas” and an objective perspective, Shaw said.
“I’m not saying that happened with Del. O’Donnell. I think he’s done a very good job. At the same time, I can see them wanting some new leadership. I don’t think it’s a reflection on him; I just think it’s time for a change,” she said.
During his tenure as minority leader, O’Donnell cosponsored Jessica’s Law to strengthen current sex offender laws in Maryland and, on the House Environmental Matters Committee, often “fought excessive regulations that are hurtful to the homeowner,” Calvert County Republican Central Committee Chairwoman Ella Ennis said Wednesday.
He was also known in the Lusby community for his efforts to bring local, state and federal officials together to find solutions for homeowners living along the cliffs of Calvert whose homes were in danger of falling into the Chesapeake Bay, since endangered species protections prevented them from controlling erosion on their properties, Ennis said.
“I think Tony O’Donnell has been an excellent leader and an excellent representative for Calvert, and I certainly hope he’ll continue to be our elected representative for a long time to come,” Ennis said. “… I think he’s a great guy. I’m sorry the decision came out the way it did.”
“Tony’s been a wonderful friend to us. He’s done a lot of work for us,” Mary Burke-Russell, chairwoman of the St. Mary’s County Republican Central Committee, said Wednesday.
Burke-Russell said she is looking forward to seeing O’Donnell and other Republicans at the committee’s annual Lincoln/Reagan dinner Friday night in Leonardtown.
“Tony will keep working hard … for Southern Maryland,” she said.
O’Donnell served as House minority whip from 2003 to 2006 and was elected minority leader after former leader Sen. George C. Edwards (R-Allegany, Garrett, Washington) was elected to the state senate. O’Donnell received the Edward T. Hall Memorial Award for Outstanding Republican Man of the Year from the Calvert GOP in 1993.
In a statement released Wednesday, Diana Waterman, the newly elected chairwoman of the Maryland Republican Party, congratulated Kipke and Szeliga “on their election to lead the House Republican Caucus through the 2014 election cycle. This will be a great opportunity for us to work together to recruit a qualified group of candidates, develop our slate efforts, and raise money to support our efforts.
“We owe Delegate Tony O’Donnell and Delegate Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio our gratitude for their service to the House leadership,” Waterman’s statement continued. “They have worked extremely hard to move our efforts forward and it is my hope that we can all work together with the same enthusiasm in next year’s election.”
Staff writer Jesse Yeatman contributed to this report.