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Local leadership, the next generation

October 31, 1997

He's got an old Washington County name and an interest in politics and public service that dates back to his fifth grade class at Pangborn Elementary School, where he tried to stir up interest in creation of a student council. And when Del. Bruce Poole seemed headed for a Washington County judgeship, this 1990 graduate of South Hagerstown High considered running for Poole's General Assembly seat.

Those two bets seem to be off for the moment, but the odds are this isn't the last you'll hear from Chris Shank, a young Republican who may be the brightest star in the next generation of Washington County politicians.

Because Poole's judicial aspirations ran into a roadblock that may or may not turn out to be temporary, Shank says he's staying put for now as head of county delegation chairman John Donoghue's office, a job he's held for the past three years.

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"Politics is not my concern now," says Shank, adding that his job now is to prepare for the upcoming session and help delegation members in any way possible. The future may be another story.

The son of Bill and Sandy Shank of Brightwood Acres says he knew early on that he didn't want to run a business like his dad, who founded a trucking company called Daily Delivery Service, which brought wholesale products from Baltimore to Western Maryland. Shank drove some of the those trucks, but says he's always been drawn to public service.

Though his Pangborn school council never became a reality, Shank went on to become president of South High's student council, and got some "under fire" leadership experience at a time when racial tensions ran high at that school. He then became involved in some of the youth-government efforts led by then-Gov. William D. Schaefer, whom he later served as a summer intern.

"Then I came to my political mentor, Pete Callas and I worked for him in the 1994 session," Shank said. After Callas retired, he became Donoghue's local representative.

"I've been doing it for as many years as I have and I hope it's not just youthful energy, but I love doing my job. It may sound corny, but I get a lot out of helping constituents solve problems," Shank said.

That may involve doing everything from helping an elderly person negotiate with their health-maintenance organization to assisting someone in local business deal with a problem involving state regulations, he said.

The state advertises itself as business-friendly, but Shank says that despite that, he feels there are still too many regulatory obstacles to doing business here.

"I have concerns about the state of Maryland and about the future of Washington County," he said.

But instead of standing on the sidelines and wringing his hands, Shank has worked hard to get the sort of training he feels local leaders need to turn this area around. After obtaining a B.A. in history at Johns Hopkins University, he's working on his master's degree in political management at George Washington University. Rather than just being credits toward a degree, Shank says his current courses have really helped him in his delegation job.

"Crisis management - that's the course I'm taking now - involves understanding the three stages of a crisis and learning how to get your message across," he said.

This applies not only to local crises, but to problems that arise on the campaign trail, Shank said. One of the examples the class discussed was the dilemma faced by Democratic presidential contender Michael Dukakis, a death penalty opponent, when he was asked if he would support the execution of someone who had raped and murdered his wife.

"The course involves how decision-makers, when faced with circumstances beyond your control, attempt to regain control. My communications skills have been benefitted because now I'm able to get outside a situation and see things as people inside the situation see them," he said.

He's brought local situations to the classroom, for some outside analysis as well. His senior thesis at Hopkins was on Fairchild aircraft, and the socio-economic changes it brought to Washington County.

And how might this expertise be applied to current issues?

Shank hesitates here, saying that his role is to serve delegation members, not to speak for them. But he does allow, after some discussion, that local gambling will probably be an issue in the 1998 General Assembly session.

How will the next session go? It's tough to say, but one thing I am certain about is that sometime in the next three years, Chris Shank will make a strong run for a delegation seat, touting his experience with legislation and constituent service. If he runs that race like he runs the delegation office, it should be something to see.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail.

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