Simmons remains opposed to slots

Montgomery County Democrat is one of few liberal critics of O'Malley

General Assembly -- Special Session

November 16, 2007|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,SUN REPORTER

All along, Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons says, he has known that a referendum to legalize slot machine gambling in Maryland would likely pass the General Assembly this year.

Nevertheless, the Montgomery County Democrat has repeated his hard-line anti-slots stance perhaps even hundreds of times, relaying statistics and study findings about the ills of gambling.

During this special session -- which he has called a "stain" on the legislature -- and the regular one earlier this year, Simmons has emerged as one of the few liberal critics of the newly elected Democratic governor.

His vehement opposition to slots even brought about an impromptu meeting last week at an Annapolis bar with one of O'Malley's top aides, where the Montgomery County Democrat was asked why he has been so hard on the new governor. The meeting led to a hand-written note from O'Malley, urging Simmons to meet with him, a step he never took.

As O'Malley and Democratic leaders have tried to rally support for the slots plan, though, Simmons has been undeterred. He has taken to calling himself a "bit player in a Greek tragedy."

"There are some people who basically feel that society has gone to hell in a hand basket anyway... so why not gambling?" said Simmons, 58, in an interview in his Annapolis office Wednesday night. "The only thing I can say in response is, I have not yet thrown in the towel. ... I know a lot of people wish I would just go away. They don't want to hear it."

But Simmons has been far from a bit player, several lawmakers said. On Saturday, he led a defection of Montgomery County delegates over a proposed income tax increase that he said would disproportionately hurt many of the high-salaried people he represents.

The revolt threw the session briefly into disarray, and prompted O'Malley to ask for a last-minute meeting with the county's delegation. The governor pleaded for their support and eventually got it, despite outspoken and even somewhat confrontational objections from Simmons, which have also been voiced in front of House Speaker Michael E. Busch, several delegates said.

Second stint

Such outbursts, almost always on principle, have not been unusual since Simmons returned to the House of Delegates in 2003 after a 20-year hiatus, according to several lawmakers who know him. He served in the House from 1979 to 1983 and then left politics to pursue a legal career. He is a partner in the Auerbach and Simmons law firm in Silver Spring.

"Lou is very passionate about what he believes in, and sometimes, I think, he lets that get the best of him," said Del. Craig L. Rice, a Montgomery County Democrat. "And he's always been very impassioned for many years as an anti-slots advocate. If you want fire to rain down, just bring up the slots issue."

The overtures to Simmons and the Montgomery County delegation show how vital the 24 delegates and eight senators -- all Democrats -- have been for O'Malley as he seeks to close a $1.7 billion budget shortfall and pass a referendum on legalizing slot machine gambling, long a divisive issue in Annapolis.

Simmons isn't narrowly focused on slots, colleagues on the House Judiciary Committee say. He has been known to expound at length on any number of topics and grill witnesses who don't seem to have done their homework.

"He's respected and feared, because he's so smart and he prepares so much," said State Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who served with Simmons on the House Judiciary Committee before running for the Senate. "When you deal with Lou on an issue, you've got to be at the top of your game."

Zirkin was with Simmons and O'Malley aide Sean Malone at O'Brien's Oyster Bar & Restaurant on Nov. 6 when the two had what he called "a very serious heart-to-heart.

"It was just a great example of two very intelligent, passionate people coming at it from two different viewpoints," Zirkin said. "I'm close with Martin [O'Malley] and Lou, and they've been at each other a little lately. I think it's more about the issues than it is the personality."

No antagonism

Simmons agreed. He said he feels no antagonism toward the governor, and was thankful for the note O'Malley wrote, but that he has just found himself on opposite sides of him this year.

In January, as delegates awaited O'Malley's arrival in Annapolis before the regular General Assembly session, Simmons quipped that it was like Waiting for Godot, referring to the Samuel Beckett play in which the title character never shows up. And after the first session, he bristled at O'Malley's positive declarations about what was accomplished in the session, saying the legislature had "kicked the can down the road.

An O'Malley spokesman declined to comment on the governor's relationship with Simmons and his efforts to derail the slots referendum in the House.

Simmons said he was happy for the session to be near an end after intense lobbying yesterday in which many Democrats who opposed the slots referendum were accused of not being team players.

"I am absolutely exhausted," he said. "It's been a hard day, and a lot of people have been pressured because of their convictions. People should not be discouraged or admonished because they have a particular conviction on something."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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