With his plan to legalize slot machines trapped in a House committee, Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. hosted a party Friday featuring pizza, wings and Terrapins basketball on the big-screen TV at the governor's mansion. Among those invited: four members of the panel that would decide the fate of his most important piece of legislation.
The lawmakers arrived fully expecting Ehrlich (R) to use the occasion to ask them to support the slots bill. But over the next two hours, as they cheered the Terps and shot a little pool in the gubernatorial game room, the subject never came up.
"It was a little shocking," said Del. Jon S. Cardin (D-Baltimore). "I just don't think it was on his agenda."
Yesterday, Cardin was among those voting no as the House Ways and Means Committee rejected the slots bill in a 16-to-5 vote, a huge blow to Ehrlich's young administration. With just five days left until lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn, the governor's other major initiatives also are dying or being substantially rewritten, in part because of a bumbling lobbying effort that has fallen flat in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, key lawmakers said.
Over the past few weeks, Ehrlich has moved to repair the damage, scheduling dozens of private meetings about his bills, especially slots. But in those sessions, lawmakers said, Ehrlich has relied far more heavily on personal charm than on the kind of hardball tactics that traditionally have won votes for Maryland governors.
"He wants to be a regular guy," said Del. Anne R. Kaiser (D-Montgomery), another lawmaker who voted against the slots bill after eating Ehrlich's pizza. "It has to help him at some point, but I don't know on what, particularly, yet."
A few weeks ago, Ehrlich showed up in the office of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario (D-Prince George's) to talk about Project Exile, the governor's plan to toughen sentences for gun crimes. Ehrlich stayed 45 minutes chatting about "old times," when he was a member of Vallario's committee. This week, Vallario pronounced the bill dead.
"For him, I'd do anything," Vallario said. "But the votes are not there in the committee."
Ehrlich's plan to expand charter schools, meanwhile, has been heavily rewritten to give local school boards more authority and to allow their teachers to join unions. Senate education committee chairwoman Paula C. Hollinger (D-Baltimore County) said Ehrlich must accept the changes or veto the bill because, despite a personal meeting this week with the governor, she isn't budging.
Ehrlich, Maryland's first Republican governor in more than 30 years, insists that he is "making progress" toward winning approval for his agenda and that his reaching out to Democrats such as Cardin, Vallario and Hollinger are having an impact.
"There's still a lot of time," said Martin G. Madden, a former Republican state senator assisting Ehrlich's lobbying team. "I think the governor's fighting hard for the agenda."
Lawmakers say Ehrlich's low-key style is far different from the tactics of the previous administration. When former governor Parris N. Glendening's bills were held up or rewritten, the Democrat would send administration officials to testify against those bills and issue threats to veto legislation or cut funding for pet projects.
Ehrlich has relied instead on a charm offensive. But his efforts have been undermined by an almost comically disorganized lobbying team, lawmakers said. When Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) was working to defeat Ehrlich's nominee for environmental secretary, he said he was visited on three successive nights by three different representatives of the administration, two of whom were completely unaware of the offers being made by the third.
"It's been sort of a lackluster effort," said Frosh, who persuaded the Senate to reject the nomination. "I'd be embarrassed."
Ehrlich's chief lobbyist is Kenneth C. Masters, a conservative Democrat who served with Ehrlich in the legislature. But Masters is better known for his solitary pipe-smoking on the State House steps than for his negotiating skills. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) and three of the four Senate committee chairmen say they have never had a substantive conversation with Masters.
Masters also has repeatedly annoyed legislative leaders. He forgot to brief them when the governor's bills were introduced, and he joked on one occasion that the governor couldn't meet with them because he had overslept and was "inappropriately dressed." Last week, Masters insulted Hollinger within earshot of reporters, saying her House counterpart is "way more sensible."
Masters has repeatedly apologized for his errors. This week, he defended his lobbying efforts, saying he has spent lots of time talking to lawmakers.
But with a showdown brewing over the slots bill, Masters and other administration lobbyists didn't even bother to call most members of the Ways and Means Committee this week, Cardin said. "There's not an organized onslaught or front that the governor has created," he said. "It's not that organized."