Busch's ouster as speaker sought

Minority whip promises GOP votes for new leader

Slots stalemate breeds discontent

September 12, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Acrimony from Maryland's slot-machine stalemate is cascading on Democratic House Speaker Michael E. Busch, with a ranking Republican issuing an unusual call for a change in House of Delegates leadership.

Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the minority whip from Southern Maryland, said Busch's handling of negotiations for legalizing slots has undermined the speaker's authority. In a highly partisan pronouncement, O'Donnell promised to deliver all 43 GOP votes in the 141-member House to another Democrat who sought to topple Busch as presiding officer.

"In Annapolis, your stock in trade is your credibility, and your word is your bond," O'Donnell said. "This speaker has no bond. And his stock in trade is worthless."

O'Donnell issued this pledge to disgruntled Democrats: "If you are willing to stand up and lead the House of Delegates and do the work of the citizens of Maryland, our 43-member caucus is willing to work with you. ... I think his leadership is such a failure that it calls for extraordinary measures."

Busch brushed off the threat and said his support within the Democratic caucus was solid. O'Donnell, he said, is serving as a mouthpiece for Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., whom he described as frustrated at the failure of his priority slot-machine package for two consecutive years.

"There's got to be a whipping boy because they are not going to accept any of the blame," Busch said. "If the Republican leadership wants to remove me as a presiding officer, then I know I'm doing my job."

The public challenge underscores inflamed emotions stemming from the failure to reach a compromise on gambling despite repeated high-pressure efforts. Last week, Busch, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and Ehrlich appeared to reach a Labor Day agreement for a referendum on a plan for six slots locations, but the deal fell apart within a few hours.

Ehrlich and Miller blame Busch for reneging. Busch counters that Ehrlich didn't work hard enough to secure Republican votes and that the governor never really wanted to fulfill his end of the deal.

With Busch positioned as the leading slots opponent, the full force of the governor's office, Republican lawmakers and business interests who stand to gain millions from gambling have been trained on him for months.

"Am I the target? Yes," Busch said in an interview last week. "They have to blame someone for their failure, and I'm the most accessible target. After two years, they have nothing they can characterize as an achievement for the state. So rather than blame themselves, they are going after the politics of personal destruction."

Annapolis veterans say they cannot recall a time when talk of a coup was so public.

"I can't recall any rumblings in the past," said Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director, who as a state agency worker and top aide to former Gov. William Donald Schaefer has seen former speakers Benjamin L. Cardin, R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. and Casper R. Taylor Jr. in action.

"For the past six or nine months, there have been those rumblings," Schurick said. "This is nothing we want to talk about. The governor and the speaker have a relationship that goes back 20 years."

Asked whether Ehrlich also wanted a change in House leadership and was orchestrating the Republican message, Schurick said no. But Schurick confirmed that he and O'Donnell spoke before the delegate issued his challenge.

Taylor, who preceded Busch as speaker, said the unusual call represents a troubling trend in Annapolis.

"This level of personal finger-pointing and retribution, on either side of the aisle - which I have never seen before - will destroy the public-policy-making process," said Taylor, now a State House lobbyist.

To be sure, Republican votes alone are nowhere near enough to replace the speaker. The position is chosen annually by a vote of the majority-party caucus, which is later affirmed by the full chamber.

Twenty-eight of 93 Democrats would have to side with an alternate candidate, and no Democrat appears to be actively gathering votes.

"There's no succession talk," said Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat. "All this is another ploy by the governor to use another voice to put more pressure on Mike Busch."

A former high school and college football standout and high school coach, Busch, 57, was first elected to the House in 1986 and has been speaker for two years. He was a respected chairman of one of six standing House committees when Taylor lost his election in 2002. Busch quickly corralled the votes needed for the speakership, capitalizing on his folksy demeanor and has willingness to stand his ground on tough issues - such as the proposed conversion of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield to a for-profit company. He played a leading role in blocking the CareFirst plan.

After his work on CareFirst, Busch sought to slow the rush to approve slots, questioning why racetrack owners should be enriched and why minority neighborhoods should bear the burden of facilities in their midst. Busch also is personally opposed to gambling. His father left Maryland for Las Vegas when Busch was a young man, drawn to games of chance on the Strip.

He led the House this year in a controversial vote for a $670 million tax increase package as an alternative to slots, a decision that even some Democrats predicted would lose them House seats in the 2006 election.

Despite strong feelings in the Democratic caucus both for and against slots, Busch has not lost the support of legislators, said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, the chairwoman of the Environmental Matters Committee, who is often mentioned as a potential future speaker.

"Speaker Busch looked out for the institution of the Maryland General Assembly," McIntosh said.

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