Two years ago, rookie Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch sidestepped his leadership team and relied on a loose coalition of religious, labor and African American leaders to mount an outsider's campaign against slot machine gambling.
This year, as Busch (D-Anne Arundel) launches a new effort to defeat Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s number one initiative, the longtime Annapolis football coach has rewritten his playbook. Instead of nurturing a grass-roots assault by insurgents, Busch showed last week that he has assumed total control of his House leadership in trying to determine the fate of a gambling expansion in Maryland.
D. Bruce Poole, a former House majority leader, said Busch offered a glimpse of his power Friday, when he navigated his chamber to a 71 to 66 vote in favor of a watered-down slots bill that is unlikely to satisfy the governor or Senate leaders. He then emerged from the vote declaring that he would not compromise. The coalition of support for slots in the House is so fragile -- with precisely the number of votes needed for passage in the 141-member chamber -- that any attempt to change the bill would shatter it, he said.
"What he showed this week is that he has tremendous control of his chamber, and as a result, enormous influence over this process," Poole said.
Slots backers, including Ehrlich, said Busch inevitably will be forced to negotiate -- or face a withering assault from the majority of Marylanders who want slot machine gambling.
But the razor-thin victory for slots on the House floor appears to have given Busch precisely the outcome he was seeking. It helped soothe concerns from House members who wanted him to let them vote on slots; it wards off growing perceptions that by blocking a vote, he has been an obstructionist; and yet, it still could doom the governor's legislation.
Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles) said Busch "has got himself into a pretty good position.
"If there's going to be a bill, it's going to be very close to his chamber's bill," said Middleton, a slots foe. "That's more than just luck."
Busch's maneuverings, however, are not without peril. Some lawmakers argued last week that if slots legislation isn't approved this year, Busch will be unable to shake the view that he has abused his position to thwart a popular proposal.
"He can't blame the Republicans or executive branch for not passing a bill if he doesn't let it go any further," said House Minority Leader George C. Edwards (R-Garrett). "Look, if he's going to kill the bill, he's going to kill the bill, but he can't blame anybody else."
And while Busch might have strengthened his hold over his chamber, his refusal to negotiate could further jeopardize strained relationships with the pro-slots Senate president and governor during the second half of the legislative session, when lawmakers must finish a $25 billion budget and address hundreds of other bills.
In the three years since Busch became speaker, he has never been coy about his views on slots. Lawmakers have mused over the notion that the roots of his opposition lie with the gambling problems that consumed his father, who died in 1997 in a flophouse on the outskirts of Las Vegas.
But the burly, silver-haired speaker brushes off that suggestion, saying he merely wants to prevent the state from handing out valuable gaming licenses to a few well-heeled, politically connected insiders.
"I just don't think slots is good public policy," Busch said Friday, after the legislation passed the House.