From The Speaker's Chair

A look over the shoulder of House of Delegates leader Michael E. Busch during the season's

March 05, 2003|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

The year was 1987. Michael E. Busch, newly elected to the Maryland House of Delegates, looked around the room of freshmen for guys he had something in common with.

Immediately he fell in with a group of fun, bright, competitive jocks, many of them Ivy League, all of them single, and all but Busch, lawyers. When they sought seats on the judiciary committee, Busch took a leap and got assigned there, too.

It was a challenging group. They worked hard -- they had to know what they were talking about or they'd be eaten alive. The issues they debated for two hours at a stretch were emotional: the death penalty, abortion, drunken driving. They also played hard, starting a Tuesday night basketball team, letting off steam by running through the streets together. Often they ended up at the Middleton Tavern for shrimp and beer.

Three of the guys -- Democrats Busch and Bruce D. Poole and Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. were closest, spending weekends together at the beach. Eventually each married, and ultimately, their paths diverged. Busch and Poole took leadership positions in the House, and Ehrlich entered Congress, becoming one of his party's stars.

For a decade they didn't see much of each other until last fall, when Ehrlich was elected the first Republican governor in 36 years. That same night, with the Democratic Speaker of the House, Casper R. Taylor Jr., effectively deposed by the Ehrlich campaign, Busch made the phone calls that would get him elected the next Speaker.

With two decent guys in high places, expectations ran high.

But then it happened, last week, something that Busch, 56, of Annapolis had not seen in his 16 years as a lawmaker: a personal attack, on him, by his old friend, the new governor. When he arrived home that night, his wife, Cindy, thought he looked like he had been punched.

The problem, as Busch saw it, was that the governor wanted to make what could be the most important public policy change in Maryland in years, and nobody was "allowed" to discuss it.

But he was not going to be bullied.

It had been a long fall for Michael Busch. First his re-election: He won, but he had to work for it. On election night he was taking a first sip of beer when Taylor called to say he was down by 200 votes. The Speaker's job might be open. By 11:30 p.m. Busch was at the office, calling people and asking for their vote.

There was a break at Christmas, to be with his two young daughters, Erin, 7, and Megan, 4, but most of the time between the November election and the start of the General Assembly in January he was rearranging House committees. Some people were happy about their assignments, others were not.

And then, in the governor's opening act, Ehrlich sent down an all-or-nothing bill, the centerpiece of his legislative agenda. Give me slots and I will fund education. That was it. Oh, and slots would be allowed only at four locations.

Boom.

To Busch's surprise, the president of the Maryland Senate, Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat, signed on.

But the new Speaker was opposed to slots -- he'd gambled more than he wanted to admit, but he didn't think it was good public policy to balance the budget with a licensing fee from slot-machine owners. Beyond that, he didn't think the governor's plan was well thought out. It was his job to get the members to think it through.

He had plenty of questions. And from the beginning, he asked them. Why, for example, were three of the four sites for slots in poor, mostly black neighborhoods? If the state wanted to raise money, why not also put slots at tracks in Timonium or Ocean Downs, a tourist destination?

He didn't have to worry at first, because the governor's bill floundered when the racing industry rebelled at its 25 percent share of the split.

Now it was Day 50 in the 90-day session, and it appeared to Busch from the morning's newspaper that the governor was getting nervous. He didn't have a new plan yet, and in a private talk to racing industry leaders, the governor had insulted Busch. "The Senate president is wonderful, you're horrible, and you're playing the race card," a delegate summarized for Busch at his morning leadership meeting. Some delegates guffawed. Many were surprised.

The Speaker was nonplussed. "I think they are frayed around the edges," he is said to have replied.

He returned to the questions he wanted delegates to ask. The governor's slots bill was having a hearing that day by the House Ways and Means Committee. The previous day, Busch had been shocked to learn there was still no revised bill. He had to pass a budget in two weeks.

The hearing promised to be great theater, Busch thought, and he wanted to see it. The governor had asked to speak about his bill. Busch had to give him credit. After all, there were no details. It amazed him that the governor had come out to take it on.

"I'm headed for the show of shows," Busch told Republican Minority Leader Alfred W. Redmer Jr. of Baltimore County, on his way to the hearing.

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