Kevin Spacey whips votes for Maryland film tax credits

Updated 6:20 p.m. Saturday

The invitations — sent to every member of the Maryland General Assembly — promised “an evening of Annapolis, D.C. and Hollywood.” Oh, and it was.

The guest of honor was Kevin Spacey, the two-time Academy Award winner who plays an unscrupulous, murderous politician in the wildly popular Netflix series “House of Cards.” Lawmakers got about 90 minutes with him at an Annapolis wine bar on Friday night, during which they asked questions about the recently released Season 2, snapped selfies and — whether they admit it or not — pretended that their lives and careers were as glamorous, exciting and mysterious as Hollywood’s version of politics.

Spacey? He was there to whip votes.

 

“House of Cards” filmed its first two seasons in Maryland and planned to start filming the third season this spring. That has been pushed off until at least June, as the show’s makers refuse to continue filming in Maryland until lawmakers vote to set aside millions more in film tax credits. The show has already received, or is in the process of receiving, as much as $26.6 million in reimbursements for the more than $119 million they spent in the state during the first two seasons. For Season 3, they want another $15 million. So far, the state has only promised $4 million.

As lawmakers sipped themed cocktails (including “The Frank,” named for Spacey’s character Frank Underwood, and containing sweet peach tea, white rum, basil and blueberries), Spacey played politics. It was an easy crowd.

“I’ve heard a lot about how tonight I was going to play the role of the whip,” Spacey said at one point, standing with a microphone above the crowd, according to a recording leaked to The Washington Post. “But as any of you know…”

Wait, wait, wait. Spacey paused and asked how many people had seen Season 2 of the show. The bar erupted into cheers and applause. He warned those who had not yet seen the latest season to “put your fingers in your ears, because I believe in no spoilers.” [SPOILER ALERT]

“I don’t necessarily whip votes any more,” Spacey said, “I’m running the [expletive] place.”

The laughter and cheers that then erupted seemed to indicate that Spacey can run this place, too.

When Maryland started its current film tax credit program a few years ago, supporters wanted the state to set aside at least $15 million each year to reimburse television and movie producers who choose to film in the state, creating thousands of jobs, pumping money into the local economy and creating a buzz that can attract tourists. They only got $7.5 million per year, so now the state’s movie czars have to come crawling back to Annapolis each year to ask for more money. Last year they scored $25 million. This year they want at least $18.5 million.

The production company behind House of Cards — Media Rights Capital of Los Angeles — sent Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) a letter in late January that gently suggested that if lawmakers fail to deliver, they would “break down our stage, sets and offices and set up in another state.”

Yeah, that didn’t quite go over well. Several members of the Maryland House of Delegates were outraged by the threat. They felt like they were suddenly on an episode of “House of Cards” and being strong-armed by Spacey’s character. The House Ways and Means Committee has yet to act on any legislation.

The response was completely different across the hall. Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Edward J. Kasemeyer (D-Baltimore County) introduced legislation that would set aside $18.5 million for film tax credits, which is expected to keep Frank Underwood and his cronies in the state for another season. On Monday, senators approved the bill in a 45-to-1 vote.

Now, it’s the House’s turn to make a move.

 

“House of Cards” representatives have been meeting with the lawmakers who have the power to make this happen. And they hired Gerard E. Evans, one of the state’s most highly paid lobbyists who looks, acts and talks like he stepped off the show’s set.

Evans organized Friday evening’s reception at Red Red Wine Bar, an comfortably elegant hangout amid the stretch of pubs on Annapolis’s Main Street. A collage of weathered doors hang behind the bar, which is stocked with pricey bourbon, scotch and whiskey. Red Red Wine Bar — RRWB when texting — is owned by a former Fox news anchor and his wife, and it is a popular gathering place for lawmakers and lobbyists (and, full disclosure, the two reporters whose names are at the top of this article). But for the exclusive reception, the wine bar covered its front windows and put up signs stating “Private Event.”

Reporters were expressly forbidden from entering. Not even Slugline bloggers were allowed inside. So a scrum of media huddled on the brick sidewalk in front of the wine bar in hopes of catching Spacey on his way inside (so Washington, right?). But, of course, Spacey somehow slipped inside through a back door (so Hollywood, right?). A few lawmakers graced the scrum with a comment while headed in or out (so, uh, we guess, uh, Annapolis?).

 

Attendees included ‪Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and several House members who will play key roles in deciding what to do with the tax credit in the coming days: House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery) and Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Shelia E. Hixson (D-Montgomery) and Vice Chairman Frank S. Turner (D-Howard).‬ And there was a celebrity spotting: Cynthia Busch, the wife of House Speaker Michael E. Bush (D-Anne Arundel) who was briefly featured in a Season 2 episode that was filmed inside the House chamber.

WBAL Radio reporter Robert Lang cornered Barve, who seemed to channel Frank Underwood and said: “Well, a true leader wouldn’t divulge such information in a public place like this. Thank you.”

Lang, who posted audio from the exchange online, laughed and said: “You’re quoting a line! Very good. He knows his lines.”

(Barve later said he has only seen the British version of the show, so he was actually channeling the BBC’s Chief Whip Francis Urquhart.)

 

Inside the bar, Spacey oozed charm as he schmoozed and smiled. He wore a white cable-knit sweater, a preppy look more associated with the yachts parked down the street than the mess of public servants wearing off-the-hanger, department-store suits. It was a rare bipartisan event, with Democrats and Republicans equally giddy and star-stuck. Snippets of conversations escaped from the bar to the hungry reporters outside.

Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R-Harford) showed off a photo she took with Spacey and recounted their conversation.

“I told him that he wasn’t the greatest role model for elected officials,” said Jacobs, who voted for the film tax credits. “But he said, ‘You know, you’ve got to do whatever you can do to get things done, right?’ I said, ‘Well, short of killing people, you know.’”

 

Del. Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio (R-Talbot), who is running for lieutenant governor, posted a photo of herself and Spacey on Facebook (so far it has 52 likes and three comments, including “No way! That’s awesome!”) and tweeted that the two discussed one of the show’s characters, Rep. Jacqueline A. “Jackie” Sharp (D-Calif.), a ruthless lawmaker who is groomed by Underwood to [SPOILER ALERT] take his place as whip.

 

For Del. Sam Arora (D-Montgomery), the evening was focused on scoring some points in his personal life:

 

While Spacey chit-chatted about all sorts of things, he was there to talk about the film tax credits. He acknowledged the controversy, according to a recording obtained by The Post, and asked the lawmakers for their support.

“We are enormously honored to be in this state” he told the crowd. “I can only tell you that every single day I go to work, there’s no doubt in my mind that the faces I look at of Marylanders are incredibly happy that we’re here.”

At about 8 p.m. a Cadillac Escalade pulled up behind the wine bar. Spacey hopped into the back seat and disappeared into the Annapolis night.

 

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
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