Rick Weldon exited the vehicle and looked around the sunny roof of an Annapolis parking garage.

He knows the corridors of this city well after serving in the Maryland House of Delegates from 2003 through 2009.

“I loved everything about being here ... except for the politics,” he says.

But on this morning he’s visiting Annapolis to serve in his latest role, as president and CEO of the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce, a position he has held since August.

He arrived in Annapolis to testify at a hearing on HB 721, a bill that would allow local chambers of commerce to pool their members for the purpose of providing health insurance, allowing smaller businesses to get lower rates.

The bill’s hearing was a double homecoming, being held in front of the House’s Health and Government Operations Committee, the one on which Weldon had served.

The trip is the seventh he’s taken to Annapolis to testify this session, on a variety of initiatives that the Frederick County chamber supported or opposed.

In a black, pinstriped suit, Weldon moves easily through the halls where he previously served.

He huddles briefly with Frederick County Del. Ken Kerr along a wall, and chats for several minutes with Carroll County Del. Sue Krebs as officials, lobbyists and staffers scurried past.

Weldon, 60, has held a variety of posts in Frederick County, both in and out of public life.

He’s been a county commissioner, a state delegate, the chief operating officer for the city of Frederick, and the city administrator for Brunswick.

That all came after nearly 15 years working for the Navy on surface anti-submarine warfare, commuting to Crystal City in northern Virginia from Brunswick.

When President Bill Clinton reduced the size of the Department of Defense in the 1990s, Weldon saw the writing on the wall.

The Office of Personnel Management “said your best bet would be to take a buyout and go do something else,” he says.

He landed as city administrator in Brunswick, a job that he said was perfect training for a venue like the House of Delegates, where success usually means bringing people together to solve problems.

“Everything you do when you’re a town manager in a small town is about trying to fix an immediate and obvious problem,” he said.

‘He understood how to make stuff happen’

Elizabeth Cromwell served as president and CEO of the Frederick County chamber from 2014 until leaving in 2018 to head the Charlottesville, Virginia, chamber.

She had known Weldon for years when she took the Frederick job, and had lobbied in front of him in Annapolis in her previous job with Frederick County Public Libraries.

Weldon had been named vice president of the chamber before she arrived, and their different skill sets complemented each other.

Weldon excelled at “case work,” helping members deal with red tape and regulatory issues, where his legislative experience left him plugged in at the state and local level, Cromwell said.

“He understood how to make stuff happen,” she said.

One of the business areas they dealt with regularly was meeting with people interested in getting into cannabis-related businesses.

Weldon had written some legislation on cannabis years earlier, and understood the emerging cannabis industry as well as anyone, Cromwell said.

Because of that experience, they were able to help some of the companies that are now doing business in that field in the county.

Weldon “really understood all of the legislative pieces to that puzzle,” Cromwell said.

His understanding of the legislative process is one benefit that Weldon hopes to bring to chamber members.

“The fact that I was here, I understand how this process works, allows me to maybe explain in a way that somebody who’s on the outside wouldn’t be able to,” he said.

A more political direction

Weldon has made a point to use his Annapolis experience to give the local chamber more of a voice on policy under his direction.

In February, the chamber emailed a letter signed by Weldon to its members expressing concern about the General Assembly’s considering legislation to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The letter acknowledged some chamber members support the idea, and that there are single parents and seniors who work multiple minimum wage jobs to make ends meet.

But the letter also argued that the minimum wage was meant for unskilled workers in their first job, and the negative impacts that increasing the minimum wage can have on workers.

The emailed letter contained a link to a draft of the bill and a “Minimum Wage Advocacy Kit” put together by the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.

“You, the business owners of Frederick, need to express yourselves in order to protect your business and financial interests,” the letter said.

The chamber’s other priorities include transportation, affordable workforce housing, workforce development, and supporting the county’s technology and entrepreneur communities.

The email led to a critical response from the Frederick County Democratic Central Committee, which is a member of Weldon’s chamber.

Weldon said the central committee’s members reached out to him to express their disappointment, and he had a message from them posted on the chamber’s website.

“Our members deserve to read why another member thought I was wrong,” he said.

Central Committee Chairwoman Deborah Carter said the initial email was disappointing, but she was satisfied with the way the situation was handled.

The national chamber is very conservative, and the state chamber’s kit represented conservative positions, Carter said.

But the local chamber traditionally hasn’t been political.

“We’ve always felt very welcome, as Democrats,” she said.

Carter doesn’t think there are any specific issues that the chamber has to avoid, but she appreciates having the chance to respond when the chamber’s position differs from theirs.

The more political direction is a welcome change for some.

For years, all lawmakers heard from the chamber was about the downtown hotel, said Sen. Michael Hough (R-Frederick and Carroll).

Meanwhile, there are plenty of statewide bills where the local chamber’s input would be welcome.

“The chamber should be more involved in a lot of these things,” Hough said.

A moderate Republican

Weldon earned a reputation during his time in Annapolis as a moderate Republican who was willing to work with the Democrats who controlled the House, on issues such as funding for stem cell research.

He served as the chairman of the county’s legislative delegation in 2007 and 2008.

One of the accomplishments that Weldon points to in Annapolis is his role in helping Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) provide health insurance to 265,000 additional Marylanders by stretching the state’s Medicaid waiver to include people within a certain percentage of the federal poverty level who hadn’t qualified before.

“I actually got all the Republicans on that committee to vote for that bill, even though it was a no-no for Republicans to vote for Medicaid expansion,” Weldon said proudly.

He saw it as a way to get people medical care without going to hospital emergency rooms, a more expensive option than getting care through their general practitioners.

“To me, at the end of the day, if it’s not dramatically increasing taxes, providing health insurance to poor people is a very conservative solution,” Weldon said.

He’s also proud of a series of state procurement reform bills he worked on with former Sen. Allan Kittleman and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford when Rutherford was secretary of the state’s Department of General Services.

Weldon’s former House colleague Paul Stull said he did his homework on bills, and had great discussions with colleagues about the effects that bills would have on his constituents.

After his study of the issues, Weldon always had a reason for why he was voting for or against a bill, Stull said.

As Republicans in Annapolis, Stull said he and Weldon knew they were outnumbered and tried to talk with Democrats as legislation was being crafted to express concerns and educate them on what a bill’s impact would be on their Frederick County constituents.

Weldon’s experience at the municipal, county, and state levels made him a well-respected and trusted source among both elected and appointed officials, said David Brinkley, who served as a state senator in the Frederick County delegation, and is now Gov. Larry Hogan’s secretary of budget and management.

He understood the challenges that local governments faced, and which level of government would be most effective in solving a problem.

He was always able to disagree with someone without letting the disagreement affect their personal relationship, Brinkley said.

“Which is something that is lacking in a lot of areas of government.”

‘How do you explain that rationally?’

Weldon made headlines in 2008 when he left the Republican Party and changed his registration to unaffiliated.

Weldon cited frustration with the atmosphere in Annapolis when he announced his decision.

“The climate in Annapolis is such [that] accumulating partisan political power has replaced common sense thoughtful discussions about the implications of our policy decisions,” Weldon said at the time.

Stull said Weldon told him only that he didn’t like the way issues were being handled by the Republican powers-that-be in the state, and thought he could do better for his constituents and himself if he went unaffiliated.

The controversy originated with a slot machine gambling bill, Weldon said.

Former Gov. Bob Ehrlich had submitted several proposals for slot machines and horse track betting, and the House Republican caucus had supported them in hopes of getting Ehrlich an important policy victory, he said.

But the caucus opposed a similar proposal that O’Malley submitted after defeating Ehrlich, leading Weldon to speak up in a caucus meeting.

“I said, ‘Now wait a minute. I’m not that smart, but I can’t go back to Frederick County and articulately explain why I’ve been for this thing four times on record, voted for it, and now suddenly I’m voting no, and the only thing that’s changed is the initial of the guy that lives in the big brick house.’ How do you explain that rationally and not look like a total political hack?”

He was one of three Republicans who voted for the O’Malley proposal. Within days, the leader of the state Republican Party was quoted in a newspaper article calling the three legislators “disloyal and disingenuous Republicans.”

That was enough for Weldon.

“I put on my overcoat and walked to the state Board of Elections, and disaffiliated from the Republican Party.”

Stull said Weldon didn’t appear to question his decision after it was made.

“Once he decided to do it, he did it on his own,” Stull said.

The Republican Party was going through some growing pains at the time of Weldon’s decision, trying to decide what it wanted to be and where its future lay, Brinkley said.

He acknowledged that Weldon’s announcement “created a little bit of a stir,” but it didn’t take away from what he believed in.

Weldon has never been about partisan arguments, but what he thinks is right for his family and community, Brinkley said.

Stull said that after Weldon’s announcement, some people close to both men would ask him what had happened, but he didn’t want to put words in his friend and colleague’s mouth.

While some people were puzzled by the change, he didn’t sense that people were angry with Weldon’s decision.

“There was never animosity that I know of that took place once he decided to make that change,” Stull said.

His fellow politicians in Annapolis largely understood his position, but the reaction from the general public was different.

“With the members, it wasn’t nearly as big a deal as it was with Republican voters,” Weldon said.

He got hundreds of responses from Republicans around the county and the state, including one from a woman in Walkersville who “suggested the world would be better off without me,” Weldon remembered.

Then-Frederick Alderman C. Paul Smith, who would go on to serve as a county commissioner from 2010 to 2014, argued in a letter to the chairman of the county’s Republican Central Committee that Weldon shouldn’t be allowed to retain his role as chairman of the county’s delegation.

“This action is in fact a repudiation of the Republican Party, and thus it would be a colossal act of self-destruction for the Republican Party if the County’s delegation were to retain Rick as its chairman in the future,” Smith wrote in a letter to Hough, who was the central committee’s chairman. “Independents and disaffiliated legislators will inevitably choose to support one major party or the other, but they lose the power within a party to influence the direction and content of legislation.”

Hough said recently that Weldon’s decision was “not exactly good PR for the party,” and was frowned upon among the members of the central committee.

“You never want to see that, where you have somebody who was a member of the party leave the party in the middle of their term,” Hough said.

But he thinks the issue has been largely forgotten.

“I just look at it as politics, as water under the bridge,” he said.

A lifetime of preparation

Ultimately, Weldon’s homecoming to the Health and Government Operations Committee didn’t go quite as planned.

The morning’s legislative session ran long, and the hearing didn’t get started until nearly an hour after the scheduled time.

With the time available to testify on each bill limited, Weldon ceded his time to other members of the group of chamber officials from around the state.

Driving back to Frederick, he admitted that the bill as it was written was never going to pass.

He was hopeful that its supporters would take another look at the bill over the summer to look at its opponents and their objections, and use the knowledge to write a better bill for the next session.

It’s the strategy of a veteran lawmaker, a centrist who has built a career around trying to find the best solution possible.

That experience and the connections he gained during his time in office are among the assets he brings to his position at the chamber.

“I like to tell people that everything I’ve done has prepared me for this job,” he said.

Follow Ryan Marshall on Twitter: @RMarshallFNP.

Ryan Marshall is the transportation and growth and development reporter for the News-Post. He can be reached at rmarshall@newspost.com.

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