Ehrlich's plea for slots rallies fellow Republicans

Senator at odds with GOP votes yes in spite of anger

General Assembly

February 28, 2004|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

It was minutes before the Senate was to vote on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s slots plan, and Republican support was very much up in the air.

Some senators remained troubled by placing slot machines not just at racetracks but at three off-track locations. A couple were torn by their campaign promise to only permit expanded gambling through a voter referendum.

And then there was the Republican senator running for Congress, angered by a state party mailing sent this week supporting the incumbent. He was threatening not just to oppose Ehrlich's slots plan, but to bolt the GOP altogether and become an independent.

"The governor seemed to be struggling with the local politics of his Republican caucus," observed Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who won slots support from three more Democrats than voted for last year's gambling bill. "The governor needed some time to work with his Republican caucus."

Miller had enough Democratic support to assure passage of the slots bill, but a significant drop in GOP votes would have represented a severe blow to the governor and his effort to carry slots momentum into the House of Delegates.

So Ehrlich and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele grabbed the 14 Republican senators for a closed-door meeting in the Senate lounge to emphasize - loudly - the importance of supporting the administration's proposal to legalize slot machines.

"The governor met with the entire Senate caucus and shared with them his opinions," said Ehrlich adviser Paul E. Schurick. "He made his case emphatically."

The candid conversation worked for most of the GOP senators. Last year, 10 voted for the bill, three opposed it and one chose not to vote. Yesterday, only one Republican senator dropped her support. Sen. Janet Greenip of Anne Arundel County chose not to vote.

"This bill is a tough bill for conservative Republicans to vote for it," said Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican who had been thinking about voting against the measure. "I think the governor coming to the caucus just before the vote was very effective. The governor can be very persuasive."

But one senator needed a little extra persuasion. Sen. Richard F. Colburn, an Eastern Shore Republican, was angered by a Maryland Republican Party mailing that arrived in the mailboxes of likely voters in Tuesday's 1st District GOP congressional primary.

Colburn is challenging Rep. Wayne T. Glichrest. The glossy, color mailing - paid for by the state party - featured Ehrlich urging people to "help me show the strength of Maryland's Republican Party by supporting our team in the Republican primary on March 2." On the other side was a picture of Ehrlich and Steele, as well as a picture of Gilchrest shaking hands with President Bush.

"This was clearly over the line," Colburn said. "We all help raise money for the party, and to have the party then use that money against me is wrong. The Maryland Republican Party shouldn't play a role in this."

Colburn - who on Thursday succeeded in changing the bill to keep slots out of Dorchester, his home county - said he was so frustrated he was thinking about quitting the party. "If it's clear to me that the party is not only not behind me, but is supporting my opponent, it would be meaningless to be a member of such a party," Colburn said.

John Kane, chairman of the state party, said Colburn's complaint is baseless. Kane said the GOP has long had a "clear incumbent protection policy."

"For him to say that it's not fair is being loose with his words, because he knew six months ago this was going to happen," Kane said. "The party supports the party incumbents."

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