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Shank, McKee offer tough choice in 2B

May 06, 2002|BY BOB MAGINNIS

Redistricting changed the race for the District 2B delegate seat in the Maryland General Assembly, pitting two incumbent Republican delegates - Bob McKee and Chris Shank - against one another. Neither will agree to move, which leaves voters like me asking ourselves this question: "If one's gotta go, which one should it be?"

The question is especially relevant because statewide both are in the minority party. To be as effective as Democrats, they've got to work twice as hard.

I've known Bob McKee for more than 20 years and first met him while covering the Washington County Big Brothers agency, of which he's the long-term executive director.

His approach - concentrating on service instead of acquiring fancy quarters - impressed me so much that I became a board member for a while. The agency's old office on North Potomac Street was a little bit bigger than a hole in the wall, but not much. But the boys I met then - the agency also serves girls now - at banquets and other events seemed to get a lot from their Big Brother matches.

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While he ran the agency, McKee also pursued a political career, running unsuccessfully against Irv Hoffman and then Pete Callas before finally gaining the seat when Callas retired.

He's the delegation's chairman now, which means extra work that doesn't get much notice from voters, except when there's a problem. In 1999 he said that as chairman his job would be to organize and facilitate the delegation's business rather than push his own bills.

Shank ran the delegation's office when Del. John Donoghue was the chairman. Shank, who's been interested in politics since he tried to start a student council as a Pangborn Elementary School fifth grader, won a close race against Del. Bruce Poole four years ago.

The incumbent hammered Shank for taking state scholarship money from Del. Dongohue, even though Shank lived outside Donoghue's district and had served as his campaign treasurer. But after the absentee ballots were counted, Shank had won by 247 votes.

The coming campaign has already produced some sparks, with McKee charging that before the session was over, Shank sent out a campaign piece thinly disguised as a voter survey.

McKee also accused Shank of working behind the scenes to change the first draft of the redistricting map to put McKee at a disadvantage.

Shank denied it, but he's close with Donoghue, who's tight with House Speaker Cas Taylor, so if it's not true, it's not unbelievable either.

And so, after reviewing four years' worth of legislative stories, here's my conclusion: McKee is the better person, but because he's a little bit ruthless, Shank may eventually be the better legislator.

I say "eventually" because a look at his first term suggests he's not there quite yet. In the review of 2002 bills published in The Herald-Mail, all three of Shank's bills were killed in committee, including one dealing with penalties for paying parking tickets late that the City of Hagerstown opposed.

To be fair, McKee didn't do much better in 2002, though his one bill to exempt landlords from lead-paint rules as long as an inspection certified the surfaces were lead-free passed the House, but died in the Senate.

Over the last four years, Shank highlights have included his work on the room tax increase, which, no matter what anyone says, was an attempt to get funding for a new baseball stadium from travelers, i.e., people who aren't local taxpayers. He also helped win approval for the South Mountain Battlefield Park.

But although he came in calling for farmland preservation, Shank didn't back the county commissioners' call for a real-estate transfer tax to fund easement purchases and school construction.

His lack of experience showed on this one when he said he preferred impact fees, unaware at the time of how complicated they are to administer and how tight the limits are on how the cash can be used. When he got up to speed on that, he pursued an excise tax of $1,500 for new homes, which he said would be impact fees without the baggage.

Both lawmakers have backed ideas which have no chance of passing in Maryland, like Shank's call for right-to-work legislation and McKee's plan to loosen lead-paint restrictions. The unions will never accept the former, while Baltimore lawmakers won't swallow anything that could possibly lead to more lead-poisoning cases.

So we're back to that dilemma: Do voters pick a decent guy like McKee, who chooses not to move for political purposes because it would uproot an 11-year-old whose guardian he's become, or Shank, who's got ambition aplenty and can work well with Democrats?

It would not surprise me if, somewhere down the road, Shank took a page out of state Sen. Bob Neall's book and switched parties, so that he could get something major done instead of just standing on the sidelines.

I can't see McKee ever doing that, That's admirable because it means he would be sticking to his principles. But it's not helpful in a delegation which has a surplus of nice people, but not a lot of clout. In the hereafter McKee will get his reward for being a good person, but probably not in the next election.

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

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