Tension over slots may mar governor's day at the races Glendening's rivals likely to raise issue at the Preakness

May 15, 1998|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

When he presents the winner's trophy at tomorrow's Preakness, Parris N. Glendening will be serving not only as governor but as unofficial chairman of Maryland horse racing's board of directors.

The industry accords governors such status -- and moments of televised glory -- in exchange for good will and occasional financial bailouts. Governors may be racing fans, but they're also the industry's No. 1 regulator.

Maryland's chief executives have played this role happily because the voters have wanted them to -- not just to monitor gambling but to protect a year-round business that produces jobs and millions of dollars.

At this year's Preakness, though, unusual tension between racing and its chief regulator will be visible. Many in the industry -- though not all -- feel racing cannot survive in Maryland without the fan interest and income that would be generated by putting slot machines at the tracks.

Glendening's adamant opposition has strained relationships with industry leaders -- and slots already are a major issue in this year's Democratic gubernatorial primary. Campaign signs promoting Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann -- who favors slots -- will be in plain view at tomorrow's race.

Racing has always had a special place in Maryland politics.

From the 1930s, when Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt Jr. owned Pimlico and Belmont Park in New York, to the 1980s, when Frank J. De Francis owned Pimlico and Laurel, aristocratic owners or Barnum-like promoters have nurtured a colorful industry that features thunderous excitement, magnificent equines and the chance to win a buck.

Government tried to regulate it, assigning racing days to the various tracks -- and thereby increasing or reducing their value. When former Gov. Marvin Mandel was convicted in the 1970s on political corruption charges, Marlboro Race track was at the heart of the scandal. Mandel's conviction was overturned, but racing was not helped by the controversy.

If anyone thought the game was shady or frivolous, advocates like De Francis infused it with drama and economic value. One study after another said racing produced billions of dollars and -- work for as many as 20,000.

"It's not just $2 bettors at Pimlico on a wind-swept Wednesday afternoon," says Del. Kenneth Holt, a Republican from Baltimore County and the only state legislator who owns and races thoroughbreds.

Glendening has followed in that tradition -- though his annual moment of national attention tomorrow will symbolize cross-currents running through the industry. Concerns about state-aided gambling linger even as the state runs gambling operations of its own -- keno and the lottery.

At the same time, Glendening has approved a bill passed by the General Assembly this year that will send $10 million in public funds to help preserve racing -- and gambling -- at Maryland's tracks. But many in racing say that's not enough. They want slot machines at the tracks -- which Glendening vigorously opposes.

"You have some segments saying we want both of these toys -- racing and slots," observes Peter S. Hamm, the Glendening re-election campaign's press secretary. "But he has said we won't give them slots because it opens the door to larger-scale gambling and casinos."

Racing has always been in an adversarial position with lawmakers, but Glendening's position has added an unusual level of tension to the relationship -- tensions likely to be evident when he speaks at the annual Alibi Breakfast tomorrow with Rehrmann in the crowd.

Apparently hoping to blunt Rehrmann's presence, Glendening urged opponents not to capitalize on the Preakness to score points -- a suggestion greeted with scorn by Rehrmann and Raymond F. Schoenke Jr., another candidate who supports slots.

Both observed that the governor would be enjoying bankable exposure when he presents the Woodlawn Vase, the winner's trophy for the second step of the Triple Crown.

Although Glendening shares the winner's circle, his hand on the regulatory reins irritates the industry. Other businesses can respond much more freely and readily to changes in the marketplace, says Joseph A. De Francis, who, with his sister, inherited Pimlico and Laurel when their father died in 1989.

"It's as if you said to McDonald's, 'You can't sell anything but hamburgers and cheeseburgers unless you come to Annapolis and get a law passed,' " he says.

Deep-rooted friction

The De Francis-Glendening friction is deeply rooted. It dates to the summer of 1996, when De Francis was charged with making illegal campaign contributions to the governor's 1994 campaign. Glendening said he was "shocked" and his campaign returned the money to De Francis, who pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge and was fined $1,000.

In the 1980s, De Francis' father convinced former Gov. Harry R. Hughes that the state's parimutuel tax should be reduced to virtually nothing. A former Washington lobbyist who had been Hughes' economic development secretary, Frank De Francis had great credibility with the legislature.

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