Persuasion went on to last minute

The Baltimore Sun

House Speaker Michael E. Busch had a spring in his step as he walked toward his State House office yesterday morning. "What a difference a day maaaakes," he crooned. "Just twenty-foourrr hours later ... "

Indeed, 24 hours before, a fragile coalition behind the slot machine gambling referendum in the House of Delegates was crumbling. But by the time Busch was singing his way down the hall, albeit with some of the wrong lyrics, the referendum was hours away from passing, 86 to 52.

What happened was a case of intense closed-door negotiations, some classic Busch legislative legerdemain, a tirade from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, and some late-night lobbying by Gov. Martin O'Malley in a swanky Annapolis bar.

It was, Annapolis veterans say, about the craziest day they've ever seen.

"Welcome to the wild West," remarked Bruce C. Bereano, one of Annapolis' top lobbyists, amid the chaos.

The drama isn't over. An enabling bill that provides the details necessary to implement slots, should the referendum succeed at the ballot box, has not passed the House, and Miller has threatened to torpedo other legislation if it fails. But the step the House took yesterday reflected some deft behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

As the House turned its attention this week to the slots referendum bill passed by the state Senate, it was clear that Busch was coming up short of the 85-vote supermajority he needed to get it on the ballot.

"He's up against some people with very hardened positions," Miller said Wednesday morning after a breakfast meeting with fellow Democrats O'Malley and Busch.

But Busch, a longtime slots foe who had agreed to back O'Malley's proposed referendum as part of a budget solution, had already been working on softening referendum opponents. Earlier in the week, Busch started talking up the possibility of adding Frederick County to the list of five slots sites in the bill.

"I always thought Frederick was a perfect area," he said Tuesday afternoon, adding that "the Cecil [County] site is under discussion."

Lo and behold, a day later, when the slots subcommittee met, a Frederick County location was in the bill instead of a site at Ocean Downs in Worcester County. And a location slated for Cecil County was suddenly expanded to include Harford County, too.

That sent Harford and Frederick legislators into panic.

Del. Mary-Dulany James, a Harford Democrat, began a personal lobbying push, vowing to do everything she could to get her county out of the bill.

"I'm working very hard behind the scenes," she said.

She was exactly the kind of person Busch needed to get his referendum to succeed: a Democrat from a conservative district who had refused to commit on the referendum.

Thursday morning, the subcommittee reconvened. Del. Frank S. Turner, the committee's chairman, announced that all the changes it had approved the night before were out and, instead, the subcommittee would be considering an unamended version of the Senate's slots referendum bill.

Within minutes, the full committee had voted it out onto the floor. Del. Sheila E. Hixson, the Montgomery Democrat who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, said floating the alternate plan and switching back to the original was key.

"All of a sudden, it looked good," Hixson said.

James eventually voted for the bill. So did Del. Richard B. Weldon, a Frederick County Republican.

But the House was still a few votes short Thursday afternoon. O'Malley pleaded with the House Democratic caucus to approve slots and held closed-door meetings with Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett and key delegates.

Meantime, Miller was steamed. He sat down in the Senate lounge and told reporters that the idea of passing the referendum but not the enabling bill was "a total fraud" and that House leaders were "lying, cheating and stealing the public."

When the House Democrats met in caucus later in the afternoon, copies of the Associated Press story repeating Miller's comments were passed out. According to legislators who were there, Busch stood up and gave an impassioned speech, recounting times the House triumphed by standing united. Some people were near tears, delegates said.

The House came back to the floor. But a snag forced the chamber to recess until yesterday morning. O'Malley pledged to work all night to get the votes.

He stayed behind after a speech at a Progressive Maryland awards banquet to talk to liberal Democrats who were wavering. He talked to Leggett again, and although the county executive insists there's no quid pro quo, a handful of Montgomery legislators flipped to pro-slots votes.

About 11:15 p.m., O'Malley showed up at Metropolitan, an Annapolis bar, with his chief lobbyists, Joseph Bryce and Sean Malone. He began sidling up to legislators, mostly Montgomery County Democrats but also Del. James King, an Anne Arundel Republican, who broke party lines the next day to vote for the referendum. O'Malley had a Heineken in hand but appeared too intent on conversation to drink it.

When delegates returned to the floor for yesterday's vote, O'Malley and Busch were still a vote or two short.

Unions started calling a few wavering Democrats and pressuring them to vote yes. Slots opponents, worried that Montgomery County delegates would be swayed by promises of school construction money, e-mailed them a quote from the Book of Isaiah:

"Thy princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves; every one loveth bribes, and followeth after rewards. ... "

O'Malley continued calling delegates when the floor debate began, imploring them to give their support. Del. Talmadge Branch, the majority whip from Baltimore, and his deputies pulled delegates into the House lounge to push for their votes.

When Busch called for a final vote, the tally boards on the walls lit up in an array of red and green dots next to the delegates' names. With 141 House members, it's tough to count a close vote, but Busch has an advantage: His computer terminal is the only one that shows the totals.

The count was 83, two shy of the minimum. Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., a Southern Maryland Democrat, popped up to explain his vote, a standard stalling tactic that gave Branch and Del. Justin D. Ross, a deputy whip from Prince George's, time to fan out and get the votes they needed.

The last three "yea" votes to go up on the board were from Del. Kathleen Dumais, a Montgomery Democrat who was in one of the meetings with O'Malley and Leggett; and Dels. Roger Mano and Jon S. Cardin, Democrats from Montgomery and Baltimore counties, respectively, who were at the bar Thursday night with O'Malley.

The enabling bill is due for a vote in Ways and Means this morning, leaving Annapolis puzzling over what could be the key question of this legislative session: Can Busch pull it off again?

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