Josh Kurtz: Republican Rising Stars

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The centennial of Ronald Reagan's birth is upon us, which means Americans of all political stripes are reflecting on the Gipper – what he accomplished and what he didn't, and what he has come to represent.

On the national level, it's fair to say that Republicans haven't really gotten over Reagan and are still struggling to find the next one, in much the same way that Democrats spent a generation and a half searching in vain for the next JFK. Every GOP presidential candidate, in one way or another, seems like a pale imitation.

In Maryland, of course, there is no Reagan. Bob Ehrlich imagined himself a transformational figure, but couldn't even win a second term. If anything, it's Ellen Sauerbrey who will prove to have the more lasting legacy. She may not have been elected governor – though some people still insist, with some justification, that she actually won in 1994 – but she remade the state Republican Party in her own image, and conservatives still have control.

The debate over the future of the state GOP in the post-Ehrlich (and post-Sauerbrey) era is now under way. We won't get into that here and now, though we've said in the past that for the party to succeed, it needs to build from the bottom up.

With that in mind, and in the spirit of the Reagan centennial, we offer a brief look at seven attractive state legislators who will be part of any Republican recovery, if there ever is to be one. We are indebted to several trusted Republican sources – and a few open-minded Democrats and independents – for helping us compile this list.

Five are freshman delegates and two are new senators who previously served in the House. Some are young and super ambitious, while others have careers that may never progress beyond the legislature. They had varying degrees of political experience or government service before arriving in Annapolis.

But all essentially campaigned on the same issues: fiscal austerity, lower taxes, Second Amendment rights, limiting abortion, and cracking down on illegal immigration. And improving education, the one thing Republicans and Democrats, rhetorically at least, can agree upon. It’s also noteworthy how many Republican women are coming to Annapolis and are poised to make their mark. First, the new delegates, in alphabetical order:

Mark Fisher: Any Republican who pulls an upset in Maryland, even in conservative Calvert County in a GOP wave year, deserves notice, and the 48-year telecommunications executive earned it by ousting Del. Sue Kullen (D) by 6 points after first prevailing in a bloody Republican primary. Some of the Republicans swept into office in Calvert County could be short timers, but Fisher, with his business background and knowledge of high tech and energy issues that will be useful for moving the Maryland economy forward, could have staying power. If Republicans are ever hoping to find a credible challenger to U.S. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D), Fisher could be it. And it'll be interesting to see how he co-exists with the district's senator – who just happens to be Senate President Mike Miller (D).

Justin Ready: Legislatures across America are stocked with people like Ready – young, savvy operators who have spent a good chunk of their lives working in politics. Ready is 28, a former executive director of the Maryland Republican Party who has worked for state Sens. E.J. Pipkin and Janet Greenip, among other pols. He also runs a marketing, advertising and printing business, and is the son of a preacher. On his website, Ready pays tribute to Reagan, and has a cute, effective slogan: "Ready to Listen, Ready to Lead!" Carroll County needed some fresh blood, and Ready readily provides it.

Kelly Schulz: District 4A in northern Frederick County sent two women to Annapolis to replace Dels. Joe Bartlett (R) and Paul Stull (R), and they are often mentioned as part of a political package. But Schulz' colleague, Del. Kathy Afzali, is slightly rougher around the edges, a tea partier who is more likely to make enemies in the State House. Schulz, a 41-year-old former real estate agent and self-described "hockey mom," may not be any less conservative, but she proved her ability to bring people together when she served as chairwoman of the Frederick County GOP and ran the McCain campaign in Frederick. She also worked for House Republicans in Annapolis, so she knows how the town works. Will voters punish her and her Republican colleagues for refusing to support bond bills for local projects? Stay tuned.

Kathy Szeliga: Szeliga starts with a powerful ally: her former boss, U.S. Rep. Andy Harris (R), whom she served as chief of staff when he was in the state Senate. But she's a lot less grating than Harris – and her colleagues on both sides of the aisle will appreciate that. Like Harris, Szeliga, 49, has close ties to movement conservatives in Maryland – she's a leader in the Association of Maryland Families. And her website features pictures of her with Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist, a clear indicator of her political views. She's poised to be a thorn in the side of House Democrats with her perch on the Appropriations Committee. And she's a political survivor, withstanding an attempt by Mike Miller last year to fire her as she prepared her House campaign while still on the Senate payroll. Her northern Baltimore County district as currently drawn is a Republican stronghold, and it will be interesting to see how she asserts herself in state and local GOP circles.

Cathy Vitale: Vitale, 46, spent 10 years on the Anne Arundel County Council before being elected to the legislature, and that experience, forging coalitions with both Republicans and Democrats in one of Maryland's true swing counties, will serve her well. Representing a largely blue collar district, Vitale became known as an anti-tax crusader. But she showed surprisingly strong environmental leadership on the local level, and she'll be able to put that background to good use on the Environmental Matters Committee. A practicing attorney, she, like Schulz, once served as chairwoman of her county's GOP.

Beyond the five new delegates, two new Republican senators bear watching:

Sen. J.B. Jennings' announcement last week that he was about to be shipped to an Air Force base in Georgia to fulfill his military reserve service was another reminder of the kind of quality public servant he is. His colleagues gave him a standing ovation. Jennings, a farmer, a firefighter, and a former Ehrlich aide, spent eight years in the House, and started his campaign to succeed Harris as the slight underdog to former Del. Al Redmer (R). But Jennings had the energy and grass-roots support to prevail in the primary, and at age 36, his future seems limitless.

Chris Shank also arrived in the Senate after a grueling Republican primary last year, outhustling veteran Sen. Don Munson with a lot of help from the conservative grass roots. Shank became working for the Washington County legislative delegation when he was still in college and then beat one of his bosses, Del. Bruce Poole (D), in 1998. Shank may at times come off a little too slick and politically ambitious, but there's no denying his smarts. He's on a bigger stage now in the Senate and should be more effective there. At age 38, he's among those in the top tier of potential successors to U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R) whenever the 84-year-old congressman decides to retire.

Sen. Joe Getty (R) also deserves to be on the list. With his eight years in the House and his time as Ehrlich’s legislative and policy director, he’ll make an impact in the Senate right away. And while yes, he could be in the mix of possible Congressional candidates when Bartlett moves on, at age 58, he doesn’t quite qualify as a rising star any more. With all due respect!

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Only 2,114 Days Till Election Day 2016

An Old Timer Holds Forth on Annapolis

Maryland's Moment?

Happy New War

Nobody Asked Me, but…

To the Mooney...

Can Baker Cook Up Real Change?

Preppies at the Gate

Marylanders (Still) on the National Stage

We Don’t Know Jack: Fallout from Johnson Arrest Could be Far-reaching

After Ehrlich

Tomorrow Never Knows

To Be Frank (Part 2)

The More Things Change....

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Polls Apart

Van Hollen's Burden

Not Rhee-a-listic

Tomorrow’s Headlines Today!

20th Century Comes to Baltimore County

Primary Colors

Murphy the Smurf

A Gene for Public Service

No Agnew Here

The Full Montgomery

Shock and Tawes

Uly's Gold

Death and Deadlines

Bad News for Democrats From Washington to Washington County

Mr. Smith Goes ... Where?

End of the Line for Vallario?

Mission: Control

Post Plays Favorites

Red Storm Rising

Michael & Me

Wanted: Fresh Blood


Black and Blue?


Take Me Back to Old Virginny

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George's County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.