Governor's gambling opposition raises ire Charitable gaming has many proponents in Glendening's base

March 24, 1997|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

LAUREL -- From the playing fields of Prince George's County, Gov. Parris N. Glendening looms as an enemy of baseball, motherhood and apple pie.

His loudly trumpeted opposition to casino gambling and slot machines translates here as opposition to boys and girls sports, to senior citizens programs and to fire equipment -- much of which has been paid for in recent years with profits from "charitable casinos."

On May 25, that robust flow of money will end unless a law reauthorizing roulette wheels and poker tables in Prince George's is passed in Annapolis, a doubtful prospect.

From Laurel in the north to Accokeek at the southernmost reaches of the county, panicky questions are raised: Who will pay for the football uniforms? Who will handle the financial notes on top-of-the-line Pierce fire engine pumpers and Seagrave ladder trucks? How will the new senior center in Hyattsville proceed?

And, how will the governor's policy affect him politically?

"I never voted for him to begin with, and I'll never vote for him in the future," says Bill Rau, a youth team coach and a member of the Laurel Boys and Girls Club since he was 8. "Anyone's mind I could change, I would."

Glendening's standing in statewide opinion polls has moved up recently from last year's depths, but here in Laurel, where firefighters and coaches such as Rau are among the county's opinion leaders, the policy is not an endearing one.

Eileen Bennett, who was an organizer of the football program for many years, says Glendening may have been seeking consistency by hauling Prince George's into his "no casinos, no exceptions" tent, but she says the risk for him was significant.

"We have 3,000 adult members," she says. "We have a huge constituency."

Since he relied heavily on casino revenue when he was Prince George's County executive, allowing the charities to buy fire engines, senior citizen services and uniforms for the football players, Glendening finds himself referred to as a hypocrite and turncoat.

He has pitted himself against community volunteers, the well-heeled and desperate gambling industry -- and two of the county's most astute political operatives, one of them his former chief of staff, Joel D. Rozner.

"I think he's made an unfair decision regarding my clients," says Rozner, a lawyer and lobbyist in Annapolis. "I don't find it enjoyable trying to prove it was not only unfair, but inconsistent with his policies toward other counties."

Virtually every other county in the state has some form of charitable gaming, if not casinos. None of them are being fored to close, Rozner notes.

Rozner and his casino clients commissioned a poll that Rozner says shows 65 percent of Prince George's residents do not have a problem with charity gaming.

Benefit to county

The county government has not had a problem with it either. Quite the contrary, Rozner says. Last year, the government received $5.2 million from the 20 percent gross receipts tax imposed on gambling -- in a county where voters recently reaffirmed their unwillingness to pay more taxes and where the government faces huge financial needs.

All of which raises questions about Glendening's decision to take on activists in his base of political support, one of just three jurisdictions that supported him for governor. He did it for reasons which were, somewhat ironically, rooted in other aspects of the gambling issues.

Embarrassed by assertions that he agreed during a private meeting with the mayor of Baltimore to allow slot machines at racetracks -- and to dispense much of the revenue to Baltimore -- Glendening announced last fall that he would oppose any effort to bring casinos and slots to Maryland.

"No slots, no casinos, no exceptions," he said in an effort to display new strength and resolve. Later, he extended the not-while-I'm-in-office prohibition to his home county -- where, unlike other counties with gambling, keeping the casinos open would require a new law, since the legislature voted two years ago to close them this spring.

Fierce opposition

The reaction here to Glendening's position has been fiercer, stronger and more organized, perhaps, than the governor and his advisers expected.

With financial data, polls, full-page newspaper and TV advertisements -- and a full-dress rally at the state capital -- Rozner and former state Del. Timothy F. Maloney have tried to pressure Glendening into backing away from his stand against his own county -- or, at least, to attempt to stop gambling in other counties as well.

Steve Novak, representing Crescent City Jaycees Foundation, a major sponsor of gambling operations, says he believes Glendening has received 12,000 postcards from Prince Georgians who want him to rethink his opposition. Another wave of cards is under way.

In Laurel, though, there is little hope any of these exertions will mean much.

"He's gone so far, I don't see how he can back down," says Marie Sailor, a casino worker.

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