It's Monday night after the evening legislative session, and at O'Brien's Oyster Bar and Restaurant in downtown Annapolis the smoke-filled room and the backroom deal live on -- sort of.
In one corner, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) is being mobbed by backslapping legislators. In another, Maryland Republican Party Chairman John Kane chats amiably with Del. Carmen Amedori (R-Carroll).
Meanwhile, old-timers such as Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks (D-Baltimore) talk wistfully of the days when deals were consecrated with a splash of bourbon (paid for by a lobbyist, of course) and when an arm around a cute young intern wasn't necessarily risky business.
"This is so far from the way it used to be," Oaks said, surveying the scene. "This time on a Monday, you couldn't get through the entrance. . . . A lot of that changed when they changed the ethics laws."
Oaks was referring to regulations that bar lobbyists from buying drinks and meals for legislators. All agree that the new rules put a damper on the fun and that during the administration of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, the bar scene suffered from lack of a quorum.
Since Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) became governor, though, the senators and delegates have been trickling back, lured by the camaraderie and the promise of a Steele sighting or even a cameo by Ehrlich himself.
"The prior administration wouldn't be seen dead with people like this," said Del. James E. Rzepkowski (R-Anne Arundel).
Rzepkowski didn't go to O'Brien's for the last few years, partly because he had a baby to tend to, but he's been coming this year. "It allows me to see individuals in a different light," he said. "You see them in an atmosphere that is social and relaxed. Plus, it's a great place to pick up on rumors."
In the back, Del. Patrick N. Hogan (R-Frederick), at 24 the youngest legislator in town, was trying what looked like his first cigar. He walked up to a table where two other freshman delegates, Anne R. Kaiser (D-Montgomery) and Jon S. Cardin (D-Baltimore County) were debating the evils of television.
Spying the baby-faced Hogan, Kaiser teased him: "Are you old enough to smoke that?"
"Well, you're obviously old enough to scold me for it," Hogan shot back.
Kaiser, at 35 the youngest female delegate, winced. "Good one," she said.
Hogan was drinking water, but just about everyone else was consuming an adult beverage. Rzepkowski was downing Miller Lite; Sen. John C. Astle (D-Anne Arundel) was sipping whiskey; and Del. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) and Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr. (D-Prince George's) were ordering another round of Tanqueray and tonic.
There was a rumor, confirmed by several sources, that Steele himself had been throwing back Slippery Nipples -- half Sambuca, half Bailey's Irish Cream -- at Kaiser's birthday party a few weeks ago. Asked to comment, he said: "The only person who can confirm what I ingest is me," he said. "I had a drink."
Finally, Steele made his way out the door. "I like to socialize a little, make sure everyone is behaving," he said.
Not long after the lieutenant governor left the building, Zirkin and Giannetti commandeered a microphone. In a soothing tenor, Zirkin crooned the chorus of a song about other bygone days, "American Pie."
Everyone sang along:
Them good ol' boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye
Singing "This'll be the day that I die,
This'll be the day that I die."