The collapse of a last-minute slot machine gambling deal this week reflected not only sharp political divisions in Annapolis but also the disarray among powerful interests fighting for a stake in the financial windfall the machines could produce, state leaders said yesterday.
Even as the politicians were parceling out blame, what became evident is that competing interests, including the developers of National Harbor in Prince George's County, have helped thwart efforts to bring slots to Maryland.
"There are so many different camps on the pro-slots side, and each one of them wants the whole pie to himself," said Minor Carter, a lobbyist for a group that has been fighting a gambling expansion in Maryland. "We have benefited tremendously from their inability to get together and strike a common cause."
Rarely have the divisions been clearer than on Wednesday, as Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Democratic House Speaker Michael E. Busch (Anne Arundel) appeared, for at least part of the day, to be working toward a compromise on slots. Their tentative agreement, hashed out over Diet Cokes during a late-night meeting in the governor's mansion, would have brought as many as 15,500 slot machines to six venues.
Three venues were at horse tracks: Pimlico, Laurel Park and Rosecroft Raceway. The others were at state-owned sites: the Rocky Gap lodge in Western Maryland, near a hotel in Cambridge and a facility to be built in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
As lawmakers gathered in Annapolis on Wednesday to weigh in on the plan, lobbyists for the National Harbor development, planned for the Potomac waterfront, began working to defeat it. Carl Jones, an investor in the project, went to Annapolis to meet with members of the Prince George's legislative delegation. And John Steirhoff, who represents developer Milton Peterson, put out calls to tell lawmakers that passage of the plan -- with slots at nearby Rosecroft -- could jeopardize National Harbor.
Del. Justin D. Ross (D-Prince George's) said that even though he opposes slots, he received a call from a lobbyist for National Harbor and was told that "if Rosecroft gets slots, we're pulling out of National Harbor."
Ross said that pitch resonated with delegation members, who have high hopes for the biggest economic development project in the county in decades. "We know that if you put an entertainment venue three miles away, it would compete for business," he said.
At the same time, Carter said he heard from lawmakers that other developers were working hard to either wedge their way into the bill or defeat it outright. Among the developers was politically connected Baltimore bakery magnate John Paterakis Sr., who does not have a stake in any of the sites that would have been guaranteed a license. Paterakis did not return calls to his office.
Potomac developer William Rickman Jr. acknowledged an interest in the legislation. "Of course, we were involved in trying to position ourselves," he said.
Rickman said he made headway with a proposal to link the Cambridge venue with his Ocean Downs racetrack near Ocean City. But the plan never got very far, he said, because opposition from other quarters was already sinking the bill. "My little concerns turned out to be not very important because I was just one of many . . . that had problems with the bill," he said.
On the opposite side, some lawmakers said, were wealthy parties who strongly supported the compromise plan, including Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, whose family revived plans yesterday to buy Rosecroft, and Joseph A. De Francis, minority owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park.
"The interests that were included in the bill, all of them very close to the Senate president, were very aggressive yesterday," Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery) said, referring to Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert).
Angelos lobbyist Gerard E. Evans said he was not lobbying lawmakers yesterday.
De Francis took a similar stand. "Yesterday, we sat on the sidelines and waited for the decision-makers to make a decision."
Angelos and De Francis have the ability to make their presence felt. On Wednesday, Common Cause of Maryland released a study showing that Angelos has given $116,750 to political candidates in Maryland since 1999 through various entities under his control, and De Francis and his family have given $137,677 through various entities.
Still, the focus in Annapolis yesterday was not on the role of business interests in scuttling the slots proposal, but on the two key personalities who did battle this past week: Ehrlich and Busch.
In a lengthy debriefing with reporters yesterday, Busch said he was wooed by Miller to meet with the governor and then promised a deal that would ensure the support of at least 35 Republican delegates for a slots referendum.
"Honestly, I thought there was a great opportunity Monday night," Busch said. Ehrlich's failure to deliver that support, Busch said, was evidence that the governor was unwilling to take the steps needed to get the job done.
"Ultimately, the conductor of the train in Maryland is the governor," Busch said. "If he wanted to make this happen, he could have."
"Absolute bull," said Paul E. Schurick, the governor's communication's director. "We were being dealt with in bad faith from the beginning. He made promises to us that he couldn't deliver."
Staff writer Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.