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Ehrlich Takes A Gamble In Calvert

Governor Plays Bingo, Pushes for Slots Deal

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page B01

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pressed his case for legalized gambling yesterday from the taproom of a waterfront resort in Calvert County, pushing $20 bills into a chirping game that looked and sounded exactly like a slot machine.

Ehrlich slapped the flashing "start" button of the "electronic pull-tab bingo" machine -- legal in Maryland -- and watched with mild amusement as the cherries, oranges and bars spun in an animated blur on the screen before him. He tuned out reporters' questions as the chimes and bells reached a crescendo, and the game settled on three cherries.

In Chesapeake Beach, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. plays the "electronic pull-tab bingo" machine to make a point about slots legislation. Behind him is Gerald Donovan, owner of the Rod 'N' Reel Restaurant. (James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

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"A winner," he declared with a hint of surprise, as television news crews closed in around him to capture the moment. "And that's not rigged!"

The campy media event at the Rod 'N' Reel Restaurant was the governor's way of making yet another appeal for a gambling expansion in Maryland, an initiative that has stalled in Annapolis for the third consecutive year and appears doomed as the 2005 General Assembly session nears its conclusion.

Rather than engage in face-to-face negotiations with key players in the State House, Ehrlich was betting that the same nice-guy image he has used to promote the state in tourism ads will help him create the kind of public groundswell needed to break the logjam in the legislature.

"We'll try anything," said Ehrlich (R). "Wherever I go, I hear it from the people of Maryland: 'Get it done.' "

Although the governor's bully pulpit approach may register with voters, lawmakers said they thought it was the wrong way to spend an afternoon when there are just four days left to resolve differences over competing gambling bills.

"There's a time for politics and a time for hard work," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), one of the governor's closest allies in the effort to legalize slots. "This requires real grunt work -- sitting down and talking to people. Asking, begging, pleading for compromise. That's what he should be doing."

Ehrlich's public appeals were aimed at House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who has refused to consider any changes to a slots bill his chamber passed last month.

Busch argues that the bill passed with a majority so fragile that it would crumble if the legislation was amended, and he has declined to appoint a conference committee to negotiate a compromise with senators. The Senate has its own version, and Miller has refused to accept the House bill.

The two chambers' plans are significantly different. The House's measure would allow 9,500 machines at sites in Allegany, Anne Arundel, Frederick and Harford counties. The Senate's would permit 15,500 machines at seven locations, four of which would be horse racing tracks. Those sites would be selected by a nine-member commission, a majority of whose members would be appointed by Ehrlich.

One effort to bridge the gap between the two bills was launched late yesterday by Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr. (D-Prince George's), whose district is home to the Laurel Park racetrack, a potential slots venue. Giannetti tried to use his swing vote on a controversial Anne Arundel schools bill as leverage to get Busch to consider the senator's slots proposal, which he called "Operation Last Ditch."

"I just wanted to start a discussion," Giannetti said. The gambit failed.

Although Ehrlich's rhetoric yesterday targeted Busch, his decision to stage his appeal at the Rod 'N' Reel -- in the heart of Miller's district -- struck some lawmakers as a subtle message to the Senate president to relent and accept the House bill. Asked whether he would accept the House bill, Ehrlich did not answer directly.

"If you think you can make [the bill] better, you need to try," he said.

Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director, said the only reason the governor traveled an hour to Chesapeake Beach was to appear at the Rod 'N' Reel, a restaurant and hotel resort that is home to more than a dozen video poker machines. The games offer a nearly identical experience to those in Atlantic City except for a key difference: They dispense redeemable pull-tab cards to winners instead of coins. The bartender pays out cash for winning cards.

The governor's press secretary cycled news cameras into the cramped bar to capture Ehrlich at the machine, supplying another $20 bill when the governor mistakenly cashed out before every crew had its footage. By the time he was ready to take questions, Ehrlich had a fistful of the redeemable tabs. But this was not to be his lucky day. The governor's spokesman said later that Ehrlich lost $25.

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