Slots foes bag a literary lion

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April 20, 2008|By LAURA VOZZELLA

What the Maryland slots debate really needs is a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, and luckily, Taylor Branch is up for it.

The historian and author of an acclaimed Martin Luther King Jr. trilogy is on the steering committee for Marylanders United to Stop Slots. By his own account, Branch is pretty much "removed from public life." Why weigh in on this issue?

"Basically, I would say a lifetime spent studying Martin Luther King and the civil rights era steeps you in what democracy requires, because that's basically what the whole civil rights movement is about. What does equal citizenship mean?" he said. "To me, the first rule of the American experience is that we don't play each other for suckers. The government shouldn't play its own citizens for suckers - `We need public money, and we're going to fleece people who are foolish enough to go in and pull one-armed bandits.'"

Does the pro-slots team have anybody with Branch's intellectual heft on its side?

Fred Puddester, the Maryland Stadium Authority chief who is leading the pro-slots camp, would say this much: "We're going to put together a broad coalition."

Branch said he'd gladly go toe-to-toe with his pro-slots alter ego, should the gambling forces come up with him.

"I'll be very curious if they do. I would like to engage them myself in debate," he said. "You know, the most high-minded argument on the other side has been to save the horseracing industry and the pastoral nature of Maryland."

How 'bout Seabiscuit author Laura Hillenbrand?

Branch laughed that off.

"Maybe Chris Buckley, who wrote, Thank You for Smoking, Bill Buckley's son," he said, adding, "I don't even know if it's a conservative issue or a liberal issue. ... Slots are corrupt and anti-religious ... [but] if you're a conservative, it's better than taxes. To liberals, it's regressive, exploitive, but we need public money."

Aw shucks, no hard feelings

Joe Steffen would like to wish his suspected Internet pen pal well at City Hall.

Ryan O'Doherty has a new job, as City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's director of policy and communications. O'Doherty is a former state Democratic Party official whose e-mail address was linked to MD4BUSH, the anonymous Internet poster who in 2005 coaxed Steffen into swapping rumors about then-Mayor Martin O'Malley's personal life.

O'Doherty has declined to comment on the matter - even when WBAL's Jayne Miller and David Collins cornered him three years ago. (You can still see video of that awkward encounter by Googling "Ryan O'Doherty" and "WBAL.")

Steffen, an aide to Gov. Bob Ehrlich at the time, lost his job to the scandal. O'Doherty has fared better.

The WBAL story suggested that O'Malley cronies hooked O'Doherty up with a job at the Baltimore Metropolitan Council after he helped link the rumor-mongering to the Ehrlich administration. O'Doherty's new job came about as part of a staff switcheroo between O'Malley's and Rawlings-Blake's offices.

"In all seriousness, I have no animosity toward the guy and I do wish him well," Steffen said. "While it might seem a little incestuous to some - the whole political family - at least one side takes care of its own."

Down with trees, up with tress

At a time when Mayor Sheila Dixon is talking about doubling Baltimore's tree canopy, the city has hacked down a couple of dozen trees on Charles Street, in the vicinity of the Charles Theatre.

The trees had to go before the city could proceed with a streetscape project that will bring brick sidewalks and granite curbs to that stretch of Charles, said David Brown, a spokesman for the city Department of Transportation. New trees and other greenery will be planted before it's all over.

But clear cutting - even clear cutting in the name of beautification - tends to rile people.

"Oh my God, I wanted to strap myself to the trees like that lady, Butterfly, in California," said Station North Arts Cafe Gallery owner Kevin Brown, referring to the woman who camped out in a Redwood for nearly two years to spare it from logging. (Brown is no relation to the city spokesman.) "They had to be 50, 75 years old."

When the chainsaws started up, Brown came running out of his restaurant, yelling, "Stop cutting those trees." Workers stopped for a few minutes, called their boss, then got back to cutting, he said.

The cafe owner is nevertheless excited about the coming improvements, which he thinks will help gentrify still-gritty Station North.

"Although I hate to see the canopy go, it's for progress," he said. "I tell you, Georgetown's coming to Station North."

Connect the dots

The drop in Baltimore homicides has caught the attention of The Economist, which ran a story the other day under the headline, "Back from the brink." Subhed: "One of America's most violent cities has suddenly become less so - thanks to smarter policing." ... Tom Smothers of Smothers Brothers fame had dinner the other night at Morton's in Annapolis steakhouse after his show at Rams Head Live. He tried out some of his new material on a group that included House Speaker Mike Busch, Towson University President Bob Caret and two members of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, David Nevins and Mike Gill.

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