Md. leaders should legalize slots, or get out of town

August 01, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

There came a time when the late Nookie the Bookie, legendary figure at Pimlico Racetrack and points northwest, found himself in a delicate position owing to money, and his deeply held reluctance to part with any of it.

Nookie disliked having to pay off those who bet the daily number with him and were fortunate enough to hit. And he's lunching at the old Miller's Delicatessen on Reisterstown Road one day when a fellow walks up to him and says, "Nookie, you got big trouble."

"I'm in trouble?" says Nookie.

"Yeah," says the guy, and he puts a pistol to Nookie's head. "You owe me $300, and you're gonna pay me the money right now, or "

"Or, what?"

"Or, get out of town," says the guy.

Nookie asked the guy to wait a minute. He started walking from table to table, conferring with friends. He whispered to one guy here, another there. Finally he walks back to the guy with the gun.

"How did you make out?" the guy asks.

"Terrible," says Nookie. "Nobody had a suitcase to lend me."

We remember Nookie at moments like this because the brilliant leaders of the state of Maryland, who once declared gamblers such as Nookie to be a plague on the community's morals until they discovered for themselves the various benefits of gambling, now appear poised to jump into action in a manner they've debated and danced around, but never actually attempted.

And, like Nookie the Bookie, if they fail to do it this time, they ought to borrow themselves a suitcase and get out of town.

The mayor of Baltimore, who once declared himself against gambling, now notices he has no money for his beleaguered schools and thus pronounces himself in favor of slot machines.

The governor of Maryland, who once declared himself against gambling because he knew he could strike a better political deal if he had to be "coaxed" into it, is now said to be agreeable to supporting it.

"It," in this case, would be legalizing slot machines in Maryland. Mayor Schmoke says Gov. Glendening offered him a commitment Friday to back slots and pledged that at least $25 million a year in gambling profits would be funneled directly into city schools.

The governor's pledge was supposed to be a secret for now. Glendening said he wanted to seek evidence that Maryland horse racing was being hurt by slots at Delaware racetracks before officially getting on board.

He needs time to find evidence? He needs another look at the books in Delaware, where they're doing handstands over the $870 million dropped into slots in the first six months of action at just two tracks? He needs another warning from Joe De Francis about the sorry state of Maryland's tracks? (Or, failing that, perhaps another few checks from De Francis family members in Buffalo, N.Y., who want nothing more in their simple lives than good government in the state of Maryland?)

But Schmoke broke his secret with Glendening because he had to confer with various legislators about the school connection. The legislators leaked the secret. Then Schmoke confirmed it. And yesterday, a top aide to the governor said yes, the deal had been struck, though it wasn't quite as firm as the mayor had described, at least not until they confirm the impact of Delaware slots on Maryland horse racing.

Immediately, an issue that seemed temporarily dead at the end of last winter's legislative sessions pokes its head out of the earth. If Glendening wants it, it can pass. Without him, it fails. That's what House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said, and he has a feel for such things.

Like Schmoke, Taylor is looking at his home turf and wondering how it can support itself in the coming years. He wants not merely slot machines but a big casino for Western Maryland. He also thinks they should have casinos in Baltimore and the Eastern Shore.

Not everyone agrees. Some don't like the idea of gambling as a financial foundation, though it's scary to imagine Maryland without the enormous millions brought in by the various state lottery games of the past two decades.

But gambling's already arrived, not only with the lottery, but with casinos in 26 states. Casinos draw tourists, who bring money that otherwise wouldn't come here. Baltimore's already a tourist town, but it has only begun to tap the potential. There are adults who, having dragged the kids to the National Aquarium and the Maryland Science Center all day, like a little roll of the dice, a few hands of blackjack, after dark.

Those who back gambling talk of the money -- construction jobs, hotel jobs, dealers, restaurant help, all the new tourists, and the money supporting schools and other bereft projects -- but it's more than that. This city needs a renewed sense of life.

Are there dangers involved? Of course. Atlantic City's only now beginning to clean up its slums after promising gambling would lead directly to such an effort. But, 20 years after the fact, every community has learned from Atlantic City's mistakes.

If we can't learn -- if we continue to watch Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore struggle, if we continue to let the city of Baltimore decay -- then those such as Nookie the Bookie won't be the only ones requiring suitcases as they get out of town.

Pub Date: 8/01/96

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