The unexpected collapse of a bid to legalize slot machine gambling in Maryland was in part orchestrated by a rookie House speaker who mounted a largely unnoticed campaign that married the tools of classic grass-roots politics with the more traditional powers of his office.
Working through back channels, Speaker Michael E. Busch built a loose coalition of religious, labor and African American leaders into a political operation that employed phone banks, polls and even church bulletins to pressure key swing groups of lawmakers.
With a tiny circle of nonelected advisers -- led by two Annapolis lobbyists -- he developed "Actions of the Week" to capitalize on divisions among the various groups with a stake in slots and the missteps of his chief opponent, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). He sidestepped pro-slots members of his own leadership team by keeping his options open until the very end.
And he relentlessly stayed on a carefully crafted message: The plan to put 11,500 slot machines at the state's racetracks would do little to fix the state's short-term fiscal crisis, would enrich wealthy racetrack owners and would disproportionately affect poor and minority communities.
The House speaker prevailed, dealing Ehrlich's nascent administration a blow, besting Ehrlich's chief ally in the slots fight, veteran Democratic Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., and reestablishing the House of Delegates as a major force in state politics. It was an outcome that even Busch, a legendary poker player in Annapolis, didn't wholly expect.
"In poker, you have to believe in your hand and have the courage to bet it," said Busch (D-Anne Arundel). "By the end, I felt like I had three aces in my hand and everyone else had deuces."
What make Busch's strategy so noteworthy is that he stepped outside the political boundaries traditionally adhered to by legislative leaders. While Miller played a typical inside game, using his power to bend reluctant members and push slots through the Senate, Busch used outside pressure to stop the plan dead in the House.
"He turned out to be a very effective operator," said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. "Usually in state politics, it is the governor who tries to speak to the public over the head of the legislature. It's almost unheard-of for a lawmaker to be able to do that."
But Busch's successful operation could have some unintended political consequences.
Already, Republicans are gunning for him on talk radio and in state party "action alerts" that portray the speaker as a tax-and-spend liberal who defeated a proposal that would have helped pay for popular state programs.
Busch has also earned the enmity of Miller, who says his fellow Democrat is playing into Ehrlich's hands.
"I intend to work with Mike Busch, but the damage he has caused to Democrats in suburban and working-class areas is difficult to estimate," said Miller (D-Prince George's). "What the speaker has done is delay the inevitable and give the governor the bully pulpit. Ehrlich will now spin that his proposal was slots in lieu of taxes, and even though that's not true, it resonates with voters."
Lawmakers have mused over Busch's motivation for fighting slots -- suggesting his own father's problems with gambling and alcohol, his need to prove himself in his new political role or a plan to trade slots support for a tax increase.
Busch explained his campaign simply, pointing out that Ehrlich's plan would give each racetrack more slot machines than are found at most casinos. "The question needed to be asked: Was Maryland ready for this magnitude of gambling?"
Interviews with Busch and his allies reveal a carefully planned operation that began shortly after Ehrlich's election last fall.
For help, Busch turned to two longtime friends: lobbyists Minor Carter and Joseph A. Schwartz. Both helped Busch a year earlier in building a coalition, called Maryland Cares, to pressure lawmakers to oppose the sale of the region's largest health insurer.
In the slots debate, Schwartz represented bar owners who saw expanded gambling at racetracks as a threat to their businesses. Carter signed on mostly because Busch asked him. "We need another Maryland Cares," Busch told his two friends in early January.
StopSlotsMaryland was born, so named by the speaker, and Schwartz and Carter were deputized to build an anti-gambling coalition. Money -- about $20,000 -- was raised from bar owners and others slots opponents, bumper stickers printed, a Web site set up. The two men, directed by Busch, set out to make what appeared to be an easy vote for slots as politically toxic as possible.
The first order of business was to make public on the Web site and in news releases the views of every delegate and senator on slots. Schwartz knew that most newspapers were unlikely to pick up on this "news," and he didn't care. Besides helping Busch with vote counts, this was the political equivalent of what the military calls psy-ops, a way to get members worried that someone was watching.
Soon, lawmakers in districts where slots might not be so popular began contacting StopSlots: "You've got me as a yes when I'm a no!" they would exclaim.
Next, the two lobbyists went to work signing up as many religious leaders as they could. Properly organized, this group could reach tens of thousands of people through church bulletins and from the pulpit.
Carter and Schwartz hired Progressive Maryland, an advocacy group with ties to labor and interfaith religious organizations. The Montgomery County group had experience with the grunt work of political campaigns. Organizers began ripping through the Rolodex, pressuring labor groups to stay neutral or join the fight and reaching out to a group of particular importance to Busch: black ministers.
Busch knew that slots would pass his chamber if the legislative black caucus voted en masse with Republicans. He had to splinter that vote. Along with the NAACP, the ministers proved crucial.
After meeting with Busch, they and other religious leaders began preaching about the social costs of gambling. Progressive Maryland helped, printing church bulletin inserts with the phone numbers of lawmakers, distributing leaflets and setting up phone trees to contact lawmakers.
Busch, through Carter and Schwartz, helped direct those calls.
"He might say, 'Where are we with the Reagan Democrats?' or 'Focus on the Baltimore City and Prince George's County delegations' or 'Call the Republicans,' " Carter said. "As collegial as it was, there was no question that Mike was the captain of the ship."
To no small extent, Busch's campaign was aided by the governor himself. It took two tries and two months for Ehrlich to settle on a slots plan. Busch deliberately waited to schedule a hearing on slots until the Senate set its hearing date. Aware that the first hearing would garner the most media coverage, he then scheduled his for Feb. 25, a day before the Senate's.
Schwartz told Progressive Maryland and religious leaders to be there at 10 a.m. -- several hours early -- to ensure that the room would be packed with slots opponents. As they filed in, they were given hand-lettered signs that Carter had had his grandchildren make in return for some CDs and a basketball.
"It had to be a righteous hearing," Schwartz said.
When Busch walked in, he got an impromptu standing ovation. One pro-slots senator turned to Tom Hucker, executive director of Progressive Maryland. "Oh, my God, a lot of these people live in my district," Hucker recalled the senator saying. "I feel like I'm going to die and go to hell if I vote for this."
Ehrlich, meanwhile, showed up to testify without a bill in hand and found himself under fire for accusing Busch of "playing the race card" by appealing to black ministers.
Ehrlich's new plan, released a week later, further bolstered Busch's arguments against slots: The plan gave more money to racetrack owners than to public schools. And much of the upfront money needed to plug the hole in the next year's budget was gone. That, along with the Senate's rewrite of the bill, undercut Ehrlich's contention that expanded gambling was a way to avoid deep cuts or tax increases.
Busch's next move was to push a bill through the House calling for a study of slots. He then set about sending the Senate a balanced budget that did not include slots revenue.
One of Busch's biggest hurdles was his own Appropriations Committee chairman, Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore). He and Ways and Means Chairman Sheila Ellis Hixson (D-Montgomery) were staunch supporters of slots.
Hoping to sway fellow black lawmakers to his side, Rawlings distributed a poll to them in late March that showed that a majority of residents in Baltimore and Prince George's County supported slots, despite claims by Busch and others that expanded gambling would ruin the mostly blue-collar and black neighborhoods around the tracks.
As luck would have it, Busch had authorized StopSlotsMaryland to conduct its own poll. On the same day the Rawlings poll became public, the anti-gambling group distributed its results, which found that 63 percent of those polled statewide, and 74 percent of African Americans, opposed a plan that would give "the racetracks . . . more money than the state's educational fund."
Meanwhile, another influential black politician was working against Rawlings. U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.) opposed the governor's plan because he wanted a full-fledged casino at National Harbor. Busch exploited that split by adding a new twist to his message: If we're going to expand gambling, he began to say, why not create destination casino resorts?
Busch, Schwartz said, wanted nothing of the sort. But to stop slots, "there were all sorts of persuasion methods used."
By the end of the legislative session, Busch's endgame became clear. He was willing to put the question of slots before voters in the form of a constitutional amendment if the governor would agree to increase the sales tax. He worked his members hard, reminding them that even under the most optimistic projections, slots would pay for only about half of promised increases in aid to public schools.
"He closes the deal," said Del. Shane E. Pendergrass (D-Howard), describing Busch's tactics. "When you walk out of a room, you have either said, 'Yes, I'm with you,' or 'No, I'm not.' Anything in between is not acceptable."
On April 2, 12 days after Ehrlich's slots proposal had squeaked through the Senate, Hixson's Ways and Means Committee defeated it by a resounding 16 to 5 vote. The slots debate was over.
"He flipped votes that had been pro-slots for years," Ehrlich marveled in a recent interview. "Sheila looked at me and said, 'Bobby, this is what the speaker wants.' What are you going to do? He controls the House."