Speaker seen as effectively mastering House

Busch's defeat of slots has raised his stature, fanned state GOP's ire

April 10, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Signs in Annapolis show that House Speaker Michael E. Busch has made quite a name for himself in Maryland politics.

In the window of the Maryland Republican Party headquarters yesterday, one sign reads: "Blame Speaker Busch for Cutting Local Aid."

A few blocks up the street, an admirer has posted a banner over a political sign declaring "Hail Horatius!" -- comparing the speaker's successful stand against slot machines to the legendary Roman commander's defense of a crucial bridge.

Whether he is viewed as hero or obstructionist, the Annapolis Democrat has elevated his political stature and established himself as master of the House during his first legislative session as speaker.

"He was the undisputed winner and champion of the session. Politics is about expectations, and boy did he exceed them," said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, a key Busch ally.

Others are even more effusive about the speaker's prospects.

"Now he is a legitimate candidate for statewide office," said Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat. "I can't think of anyone who has skyrocketed to political prominence like the speaker has."

In the process, however, Busch has made himself the No. 1 target of Maryland Republicans, who believe the speaker is leading his fellow Democrats into a political ambush by blocking the agenda of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

House Minority Leader Alfred W. Redmer Jr. said Busch has increased his name recognition -- but not in a positive way.

"People come up to me and say, `Who in the hell is Mike Busch and what's he doing?'" the Baltimore County Republican said. "He's the one guy that prevented slots from coming to the tracks and he's the one guy out there advocating significant new taxes, and that doesn't play well in many communities of the state."

As the session crawled to an end Monday, Maryland Republican Party Chairman John M. Kane was mounting a campaign to blame Busch for a variety of ills facing the state. In a message to GOP activists, Kane urged them to flood Busch's office with calls and e-mails to "say shame on him for putting politics ahead of the people."

Kane said the sign tying Busch to local aid reductions -- actually a provision of Ehrlich's own budget -- was one installment in a 14-day "Busch-whacking" campaign aimed at blaming the speaker for a variety of spending cuts. "He's done a significant job in making my job easier," said Kane.

Busch dismissed the GOP blame effort. "I just think that kind of nonsense is very immature," he said.

A big victory

In a way, the Republicans' focus on Busch is a high political compliment. The GOP took many a potshot at Busch's predecessor, Casper R. Taylor Jr., during his decade-long tenure. But the statewide party never mounted a campaign of such intensity against the more conservative Western Marylander during a non-election year.

The Republican response is a reflection of how tough a blow Busch landed on Ehrlich.

When the governor took office in January, his slots proposal looked like a sure-fire winner. Coming off a huge electoral upset, he was buoyed by personal popularity and the public's aversion to tax increases.

What Ehrlich could not foresee was the determination of the rookie speaker, who gained his position as a result of the GOP upset of Taylor in November.

For three months, Busch picked apart the governor's slots proposal detail by detail -- making the case that the governor's legislation was not well thought out and unjustly enriched racetrack owners.

The speaker suggested setting up a commission to study the issue and bring back recommendations next year. And gradually he won House members -- even many slots supporters -- over.

The 16-5 vote that defeated the governor's bill last week in the House Ways and Means Committee was a testament to Busch's skills as a legislative leader. All but one Democrat on the panel voted with him.

Busch, a former college football player, said his effort against slots this year reminded him of the time he ran the ball 38 times against Bucknell for a 13-8 victory in the mud.

"It reminded me there wasn't a lot of glamour in it," he said.

Busch dismissed Ehrlich's threat to take the issue "off the table" next year. "If everyone would look back and not worry about their political stature, even the proponents of slots would realize this was not a well-prepared piece of legislation," he said in a post-session interview.

Busch said he does not intend to act as moral arbiter for the state on slots and that the House would move forward with a study of gambling options.

But the speaker reiterated his personal opposition to expanding gambling as a partial solution to budget problems.

"The government ought to think long and hard before they get dependent on these type of revenues," he said. "If you believe strongly enough in [a program], people should be willing to share the burden for that service."

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