~ Bay Weekly Interview ~
with Sandra Olivetti Martin Delegate Anthony O'Donnell
Calvert's outspoken Republican cracks the whip - lashing out at liberals, "obstructionist Democrats" and House Speaker Michael Busch.
Everybody expected a showdown when Maryland voters elected Robert Ehrlich in 2002. The state's first Republican governor since the later-to-be-disgraced Spiro Agnew in 1966, Ehrlich campaigned to revive the two-party system in Maryland and end a single-party culture of corruption.
Voters must have liked the prospect of conflict in their politics, because along with Ehrlich they elected an unusual number of Republicans to the General Assembly - although not nearly enough to equalize the parties: Democrats still outnumber Republicans by 33 to 14 in the Senate and hold the House by more than two to one, 98 to 43.
Emboldened by their success and with one of their own in the governor's mansion, state Republicans have snapped, crackled and popped, differentiating their politics from those of the Democrats.
Over the last year, no one has defined those differences more clearly than Tony O'Donnell, the Republican delegate from Calvert County. Read on to hear the 43-year-old full-time legislator, a former nuclear engineer, crack his whip.
Bay Weekly The Maryland General Assembly has convened for its 419th session. Why should we citizens care about what you and your 187 colleagues do in Annapolis over the next 90 days?
Anthony O'Donnell A couple thousand bills will come through this legislature. From raising our taxes in dramatic fashion, to regulating whether or not certain restaurants can have smoking, to the environment, to health care, to public safety - any and all of them could have dramatic impact on our individual lives.
Bay Weekly Every story needs conflict to keep its audience. What's the big conflict to watch for?
Anthony O'Donnell How many taxes the legislature is going to implement by overriding vetoes and how many new ones they'll pass.
[In the first days of each session, the legislature decides whether to override the governor's vetoes on bills from earlier sessions. Overrides are a very partisan process with sharply drawn party lines reinforced by creative name-calling and worst-case scenarios of disaster in store.]
Bay Weekly Just what taxes are those?
Anthony O'Donnell In terms of taxes, a 10-percent corporate income tax increase and a two-percent HMO premium tax to pay for medical malpractice insurance for doctors. There's also a living-wage bill that will greatly increase the cost of government and cost taxpayers a lot of money. Those are ones the governor has vetoed and that we will look at again in veto override at the beginning of the session.
Whether to override is going to be a dramatic, high-energy debate. I think many rural legislators will not want to follow their left-leaning Democratic leadership in passing these taxes. So they will be torn between the leadership and their more conservative constituencies, who are not going to want taxes.
Bay Weekly How do you define left-leaning?
Anthony O'Donnell Those who describe themselves as more progressive and seem to have unquenchable thirst for raising taxes, who will solve any problem by first raising taxes.
Bay Weekly Are taxes your number-one issue?
Anthony O'Donnell No. Government can't operate without taxes. It's unnecessarily raising taxes that many citizens have problems with. Those who want to raise taxes seem like they don't get it. At the national level it's the same: Progressives seem not to understand what red America is all about.
Bay Weekly What is red America all about?
Anthony O'Donnell Limited government. Good government. Belief in the individual and in the entrepreneurial spirit. Belief that America's best days are yet ahead of us.
Bay Weekly In traditionally Democratic Calvert County, Republicans are registering in growing numbers so that the parties are about equally balanced. In November, both Anne Arundel and Calvert went for President Bush. Is Chesapeake Country lining up with red America?
Anthony O'Donnell I think many people who are conservative Democrats are disaffected by the liberal left-wing leaning of their party at the national level. I have many Democrat friends who have said 'I've had enough.' I've had the honor of providing many of them with voter-change affiliation forms.
I think there are many folks moving into the region who are fleeing urban areas with liberal governments and saying 'that's a failed system' and coming to Calvert and becoming Republicans.
Another group are attracted to the Republican party because of governance of President Bush and Governor Ehrlich and the local Republican Board of County Commissioners.
I gotta tell you, there's a whole other set of people who are tired of single-party dominance and like competition. When I tell people that this legislature has been controlled by a single party in the House since 1898 and in the Senate since 1918, their jaws hit the ground. The Soviets didn't even last that long. Single-party systems are very unhealthy. We become complacent.
Bay Weekly You say you're a social conservative as well. Are you going to get involved in personal morality issues, like your Anne Arundel colleague Don Dwyer?
Anthony O'Donnell Those are important issues to be discussed. I commend Del. Dwyer for bringing it into the public square. Absolutely. My voice will be heard.
Eleven states had ballot issues [defining marriage between a man and a woman] in the last election. Though they are denigrated, I don't disparage them. They are very instructive as to where the majority of Americans are.
Bay Weekly So you're 100 percent with both the president and the governor?
Anthony O'Donnell I don't think I'm 100 percent with anybody, including my wife. The governor and I have different positions on, for instance, abortion. [O'Donnell opposes a woman's right to choose; Gov. Ehrlich supports choice.] That's okay. My wife and I like particularly different meals. That's okay.
Bay Weekly Some critics say the governor is his own worst enemy, proposing sweeping changes that haven't been thought through.
Anthony O'Donnell That sounds like legislative leadership, who are going to obstruct no matter what he sends down. Detractors and opponents will try to trip him up every step of the way. They have shown a tendency to obstructionism that usually is reserved for the minority party. Democrats outnumber us by more than two-to-one, so it's quite a paradox.
The Chesapeake Bay clean-up was very thought through. This governor put forth the initiative that is probably the most significant in 20 years, cleaning up these wastewater treatment plants. I admire that type of leadership. Even though conventional environmental groups don't give him credit, he's accomplished much more in two short years than the previous governor in eight. This governor is more substance than style.
Bay Weekly What brought you to politics?
Anthony O'Donnell I always joke that I was president of the student council in the eighth grade.
I served in the military and moved to Calvert. In 1990, I worked on a congressional campaign, and that's probably where the bug bit me. After redistricting in 1994, people encouraged me to run for an open seat. But I was back and forth because it's quite a commitment to make for the family and personally. The final point of decision was when I asked myself the question, 'Do you want to grow old and look back and wonder what if you had taken that opportunity?'
Bay Weekly You've served in the Assembly since 1995?
Anthony O'Donnell I'm starting my 11th session. Counting the special session [called by the governor December 27 and continuing through January 11 to consider rising medical malpractice insurance rates for doctors] it's 12 sessions.
My district, 29C, runs from below Prince Federick in Calvert County, from Sixes Road, into St. Mary's County along the Patuxent River Corridor. I'm the only Republican representing Calvert or St. Mary's.
Bay Weekly Last year you got a special job in the Assembly - House minority whip. What qualities make you the right man for the job?
Anthony O'Donnell I've had a lifetime of leadership in the military, in private business, in politics. I have the respect of colleagues, as this position is elected by Republican colleagues. The minority leader and whip run as a team. Several weeks ago, Garrett County Del. George Edwards and I were unanimously re-elected, so they're pleased with our leadership.
Bay Weekly Just how metaphoric is the name? Do you whip members into line for the party agenda?
Anthony O'Donnell I asked the state archivist Dr. Ed Papenfuse to give me some indication of the use of the terminology in American and Maryland politics. It came from old England. In fox hunting, the whipper got the wayward hounds back in the pack. Part of my job is unity and lining up the votes. In common usage, whipping is lining up in a certain direction.
Bay Weekly Do you have much whipping to do? Is there great singularity of purpose in your party now that you have the governor as your leader?
Anthony O'Donnell We have differences from time to time, but we talk them out. As leader of the party, the governor has shown great leadership and resolve, which makes it easy to support him.
Bay Weekly As whip are you also your party's lash against the Democrats?
Anthony O'Donnell To say I lash out is the wrong characterization. Part of my job is to be a spokesman for my party, to be firm, to be principled and to be the voice of opposition. I've received a lot of praise for my ability to speak out eloquently and articulate a reasonable difference of opinion.
Bay Weekly Nonetheless, You have particularly sharp things to say about your Democratic colleagues.
Anthony O'Donnell There's a lot of animosity with the current leadership in both houses of the General Assembly. I hear it in Annapolis, I hear it in District 30, I hear it around the state. Speaker Busch has been a particularly unpopular figure in my travels. People perceive him as stopping slots and hurting the state for unprincipled reasons.
Senate President Mike Miller is perceived as the guy who's been here forever and had one of our own buildings named after him and called up judges [to influence redistricting]. He's the one who stopped real medical malpractice reform.
I think that combined, they're perceived as the mirror-image bookends of obstructionism.
Bay Weekly You led last year's effort to unseat Mike Busch as speaker of the House
Anthony O'Donnell It wasn't a move. It was a political statement that House leadership had failed. I had no real hope that someone would step up. If I had, I certainly wouldn't have talked to a newspaper reporter about it.
Bay Weekly The speaker hasn't forgotten. This year, he's back-benched you - moved you back to the row where the Southern Maryland delegation sits and out of the front of the House - as a reminder of who's boss.
Anthony O'Donnell It's unfortunate, and it shouldn't be so. A strong leader is not insecure. He doesn't have to retaliate against people for speaking out. But here, people feel you're a threat to their authority and leadership. If you raise a voice of political dissent here, the powers that be will punish you or intimidate you. That's unfortunate for democracy. It's unhealthy.
I hear a lot of talk about bringing Washington-style partisanship to Annapolis. It's not so. I see Washington as much more collegial. In Maryland, if you suggest someone else should be speaker, you get punished; you have your committee assignment changed and your seat changed.
Bay Weekly Looking into the future, give us a short list of top issues you want to bring to the legislature this year.
Anthony O'Donnell I am still formulating this year's package. There'll be no major surprises. Some initiatives will be back and I'll continue to fight. Sometimes the legislative process takes five, six or 10 years.
Bay Weekly For example?
Anthony O'Donnell Just little things. I'm not sure how successful, for example, we've been in encouraging the boating public on Chesapeake Bay to properly clean out their boat holding tanks at the pumping stations. So why don't we incentivize that, maybe tax credits? You get your boat pumped out properly and the state recognizes that by giving you a little break on the cost of doing so.
Bay Weekly You've been a supporter of oyster aquaculture
Anthony O'Donnell I'll continue to fight to foster the industry. I served on a legislative task force on that industry, and I think there are a lot of things we can do to revive oysters
Bay Weekly Are you speaking of native aquaculture, for example the innovations pioneered at Circle C Oyster Ranch in St. Mary's County, where Richard Pells is raising oysters in floats in the water column rather than on the bottom?
Anthony O'Donnell Yes. They're delicious oysters, and they grow at twice the rate of oysters on the bottom. What we're doing now [in building and seeding man-made reefs] is in effect, dumping millions of dollars on the bottom of the Bay and its tributaries for years.
Bay Weekly What's your stand on trying to rebuild Bay oyster populations and an industry with the alien Ariakensis species?
Anthony O'Donnell I think scientific studies should be expedited, and once we know for sure that it's safe, we should go forward.
Bay Weekly Can that be done this year, as Gov. Ehrlich has urged?
Anthony O'Donnell I don't know if it can be done this year. The important thing is to do it right and get on with it.
Bay Weekly How about breaking the bottleneck over the Bay with a new bridge? Would you support a third crossing in Calvert County?
Anthony O'Donnell I'm going to be appointed to a task force to study the issue. I know Louis Goldstein [Maryland's late comptroller, a powerful Democrat from Calvert] had a lifelong dream of a bridge from Calvert to Dorchester as a lower Bay crossing.
I don't believe infrastructure exists in Calvert County to support that, but we may have to look at other options.
Bay Weekly Like a ferry?
Anthony O'Donnell A ferry could provide some short-term relief.
The problems become making sure you have the right landing spot so you don't impact the quality of life with traffic. If you can find the right landing spot, it should be looked at, absolutely. I opposed one some years ago because they were talking of running it out of the harbor at Solomons. That was the wrong location.
Bay Weekly Where might the right location be?
Anthony O'Donnell I know a guy interested in putting it in northern Calvert County.
Bay Weekly Do you think we have anything to fear locally about local properties on the state surplus list being sold?
Anthony O'Donnell I don't think people have anything to fear from making an index of properties, I think there's an appropriate process in place, and I think the state will protect its environmental investments. However, there are certain pieces that are environmental disasters.
Bay Weekly How about the second pipeline potentially cutting across Calvert with Dominion Cove Point Liquefied Natural Gas terminal's expansion? Citizens seem to be particularly concerned about the utility's exercise of eminent domain on their properties
Anthony O'Donnell They have genuine concerns that should be addressed. The flip side is that this country has great energy problems and standards of living we all enjoy. We need to meet those needs, We all like our vehicles and our appliances, we all like gasoline of one sort or another, and that means we sometimes have to make some sacrifices.
Bay Weekly How can such issues be resolved?
Anthony O'Donnell The first step is dialogue. Keeping the dialogue open. Not shutting people out. Listening to them. Hearing their concerns. Then working together. And I see signs of that.
Bay Weekly You came to Calvert County to work at Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant after working in the Navy on the nuclear-powered guided-missile carrier USS South Carolina. As a person used to working with nuclear reactors, do you think there's any foundation for fear with two such power sources in such close proximity in Calvert County?
Anthony O'Donnell Knowing what I know about the facilities and security at the nuclear power plant, I don't have a concern. Not that there's no danger, but I believe we've taken the appropriate precautions. The nuclear power plant is a hardened facility. The Coast Guard and the Natural Resources Police and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission have put appropriate precautions in place for Cove Point.
So do I lose sleep over it at night? Absolutely not. I live within several miles of both with my family, and I feel quite secure.
Bay Weekly Looking ahead to 2006, which Democrat would you like to see oppose the governor, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley or Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan?
Anthony O'Donnell I'm not sure it's going to matter very much. I think Gov, Ehrlich is doing such a good job that he's positioned well for re-election.