When Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch arrived here last week to address Washington County's Democratic central committee, a single question was weighing on the local party stalwarts: What is he doing on slots?
Busch's shifting stance on gambling has baffled such rank-and-file Democrats as Frederick Nastri, 50, a prison counselor and union organizer from nearby Williamsport who came Thursday night in search of an explanation.
For the past two years, Nastri said, it seemed that Busch (D-Anne Arundel) had donned the uniform of the state's anti-slots crowd and placed his bulky six-foot frame in the path of every fleet-footed lobbyist and racetrack owner who wanted to turn Maryland into the nation's next gambling gold mine.
"Then all of a sudden, it's like he's willing to concede," said Nastri, referring to Busch's recent decision to consider a statewide referendum on the subject. "I mean, what kind of leader is that?"
Busch was not quick with an answer to that question Thursday night -- his 30-minute speech made no mention of the state's raging debate over slot machines. But in an interview Friday, he said that if there's confusion over his stance on slots, it's because it can't be winnowed to a pat slogan or fit neatly onto a bumper sticker.
"I'm not trying to send mixed signals to anyone," Busch said. "But this is a complex policy issue, and it deserves to be treated thoughtfully."
Busch's nuanced position on slots -- he'll support them only if voters approve or if they are passed in tandem with tax increases -- has left even some of his staunch supporters befuddled.
That confusion was evident among Democrats in Hagerstown, where the subject garners special interest because the town is just a few miles north of the giant slot emporiums of Charles Town, W. Va.
Since Busch emerged from his steak dinner with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) two weeks ago and declared himself willing to put slots on the ballot, gambling supporters have wondered if this was cause for celebration or another dead end. But opponents worried that the man who had just finished helping them kill gambling proposals for the second year in a row had left them behind.
"Those who have been fighting slots . . . are saying [to the speaker], 'Wait! Let's not allow defeat to be snatched from the jaws of that victory,' " said C. Richard D'Amato, a former delegate and close friend of Busch's who helped organize the effort to stop slots.
D'Amato said he believes Busch's shift is the result of a punishing year under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s rhetorical hammer. During countless interviews, talk radio appearances and speeches, the Republican governor called Busch an obstructionist and derided him for, in Ehrlich's words, ignoring the will of a majority of Marylanders who want cash from slots to help offset the state's financial woes.
One "call to action" e-mail that state GOP Chairman John Kane sent to Ehrlich supporters accused "Speaker Busch and his Democratic cohorts of looking to punish Maryland's hardworking families and senior citizens on fixed income with higher taxes." The party has printed signs urging voters to "blame Speaker Busch" for cuts to education and other state programs and mocked him as its "Republican of the Year" for proposing a billion-dollar tax package. GOP leaders say that tax proposal will be a club for their candidates to use against Democratic incumbents in the next election.
"There's been this drumbeat of what I think is undeserved criticism," D'Amato said. "And his reaction -- offering a referendum to let the voters decide -- is his way of responding to that."
Aaron Meisner, the coordinating chairman of Stop Slots Maryland, said he believes that gambling opponents are so grateful to Busch for holding back the tide on the issue that they will trust that his latest move is not a surrender but part of a grand design -- one that concludes with a slot-free state.
"Mike Busch is the best thing the people of Maryland have going in Annapolis," Meisner said. "What's going on right now is not comfortable, but it's not going to sour our admiration and appreciation of the speaker."
Seated behind an antique desk in his State House office, Busch dismissed the suggestion that he has shifted his position on slots in any substantive way. It was by virtue of his position, he said, that he felt an obligation to entertain Miller's request to consider putting the issue before voters.
"I don't think it's in anyone's interest for the speaker of the House to summarily reject an offer to talk," Busch said, "especially when it appears that the governor and the Senate president are moving to a more conciliatory position."
And although he may be listening to Miller and Ehrlich, Busch said, he is far from certain that the talks will lead to a compromise. Although Miller has said relations among the three state leaders are closer than ever, significant differences remain.
Although Busch says the burden is on Ehrlich to publicly announce his commitment to bringing the measure before voters, the governor says he's waiting for Busch to agree to a range of key details.
Miller, who has acted as the broker between the two -- even though he sides openly with the governor on the subject of slots -- said the two men have "five dozen issues" they need to resolve before anyone can count on an agreement about a referendum.
As for any political fallout that could face Busch if he agrees to a deal on slots, Miller says it should not be a worry. The legislature, he said, is the land of compromise.
"Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds," Miller said, paraphrasing poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. "All elected officials, big or small, need to be constantly aware of what's best for their constituents. Abraham Lincoln had to do it. FDR had to do it. If you're bright and you're there to serve the people and not there because of your ambitions, then you can adjust their views according to changing circumstances."
That may be true in the tight political circles of Annapolis, but in Hagerstown, there is another point of view, expressed Thursday night by retired telecom worker Roger Grimes, 66.
"Right now, he's swinging all around," Grimes said of Busch. "And that's not making him a real popular man."