The apparent downfall of Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. touched off a scramble in Annapolis yesterday as a growing coalition of legislative leaders rallied around Del. Michael E. Busch to assume one of the state's most powerful jobs.
Taylor (D-Allegany) has not conceded in his razor-thin loss at the polls to political novice LeRoy E. Myers Jr. (R), banking on the long odds that about 70 percent of uncounted absentee ballots would go his way. But Busch (D-Anne Arundel) had Taylor's blessing yesterday to begin an aggressive telephone campaign to secure the coveted leadership position.
"I'm the first guy that's pulling for Casper," Busch said between calls to the 98 House Democrats who will vote to select the next speaker, possibly next week. "But at the same token, you've got to be prepared. There's a vacuum, and if you're not prepared, someone else will step into it."
The sudden upheaval in the House, along with major shifts in the upper ranks of the Senate, will tilt the geographic balance of power in the Maryland General Assembly in favor of the Washington suburbs and could set the stage for drastic changes in the legislature's political thrust. But those changes will not come easily.
Even as Busch's effort gathered steam, Appropriations Chairman Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore) was launching his own campaign for the top House job, saying he has backing from the NAACP, and from the black community in Baltimore, which wants to see a black Democrat hold statewide office.
"I'm quite aware that many of my colleagues will see this as an opportunity to elect the first African American speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates," Rawlings said, adding that he would not be shy about recruiting support from the 43 House Republicans.
The skirmish in the House occurred as Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) prepared to announce his leadership appointments in a Senate that was stripped of many veterans by redistricting and by a string of defeats at the hands of the same Republican voters who helped elect Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. governor.
Those selections, which are expected to include promotions of three Washington area lawmakers to powerful committee chairmanships, will give considerable new clout to Montgomery and Prince George's county lawmakers, and to the most liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
It's too soon to know how those changes will effect several volatile issues likely to come before lawmakers when they convene in January, such as the handling of the state's $1.7 billion budget deficit and a proposal by Ehrlich to allow slot machines at Maryland racetracks.
Busch, for instance, opposes legalizing slot machines, while both Taylor and Miller support it. Miller was hinting yesterday that Busch ought to reconsider his stance and follow Taylor's lead by making political decisions for the good of the state, not just his constituents.
Taylor, Miller said, "made tough decisions on tobacco taxes, though he's a smoker; on guns, though he's a handgun owner; and on abortion, though he's a staunch Catholic. If Mike Busch is going to be a leader, he has to lead."
Busch, 55, is an affable committee chairman who has long been considered the likely consensus candidate for speaker because he is not from Baltimore or Washington's innermost suburbs, but has forged close ties with members from both areas.
At a minimum, several members said yesterday, the leadership choices are likely to set a new, more liberal tone for the legislature -- one that will heighten the potential for conflict between the Democrat-controlled Assembly and the state's first Republican governor in 36 years.
Partly, that change in tone stems from a sharp decline in the number of rural Democrats -- such as 24-year Senate veteran Walter M. Baker (Cecil), who lost Tuesday to Republican E.J. Pipkin. Baker, who chaired the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which handles matters ranging from abortion to gun laws to capital punishment, spent years trying to force the party to adhere to a more conservative agenda.
His replacement as chairman is expected to be Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), one of the most liberal members of the Senate. Other key positions could go to Democratic Sens. Ulysses Currie (Prince George's) and Thomas McLain Middleton (Charles).
The new tone would also come with the ascension of either Busch or Rawlings, who both describe themselves as more progressive than Taylor on social issues.
Rawlings appeared to have made little ground in recruiting the backing of influential House leaders, while Busch had recruited Montgomery County Del. John A. Hurson (D), a committee chairman, and Majority Leader Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore) to make calls on his behalf.
The selection of the speaker is in the hands of Democrats, who hold a substantial majority in the House. To recruit support, Busch started calling key members at 11 p.m. Tuesday and continued his phone calls at 7:30 a.m. yesterday, delicately trying to balance the ambitions of each member with the limited number of leadership positions and committee assignments available for him to promise.
In each call, Busch predicated those deals on the assumption that Taylor would lose. Taylor did not return three phone messages yesterday. His campaign manager, Dave Williams, acknowledged Taylor "was not feeling really good about" the election.
Taylor fared well in precincts in Cumberland, but Myers swept the rural areas, where his conservative message, particularly on guns, resonated. If absentee ballots come mostly from Taylor's home base in Cumberland, he stands a remote chance of winning.
Staff writer David Snyder contributed to this report.