Delaware rapturous over our 'morality'

October 29, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE cleverest television commercials in the current race for governor are supporting neither Parris N. Glendening nor - at least, overtly - Ellen R. Sauerbrey, but are designed specifically to make Maryland taxpayers feel like idiots as our money floats off to Delaware.

"Thank you, Maryland," actors playing delighted Delaware residents exclaim. They can't thank us enough. Thank you and thank you, they declare rapturously. Thank you, they mean, for our shortsightedness, and our misplaced sense of morality, and thank you for having a governor who says: No slot machines at our racetracks, no way, not as long as he's running the state.

Which, of course, is a point not to be overlooked as these television actors thank us for bringing them new computers in new Delaware classrooms, and new police protecting newly safe Delaware neighborhoods and, not to be minimized, newly flourishing Delaware racetracks.

Those tracks are newly flourishing because of uncountable millions of Maryland dollars - uncountable, but safely in the neighborhood of about $100 million a year - which are wafting into Delaware from Maryland bettors content to drive an hour or so north to play slot machines because there are none here.

Parris Glendening, all shaky reasoning and double-talk accusations from Kurt L. Schmoke aside, has made it clear: No slots as long as he's around. But Ellen Sauerbrey's indicated she's no believer in slots either.

What gives? The only discernible difference in their stances is: She says she's willing to think about it, to consider the possibility of slots if they could rescue a racing industry that might otherwise be flirting with disaster.

And this raises a question about the "Thank you, Maryland" commercials: Why are they running now?

That they're running at all is clear enough. Maryland's tracks are in major trouble, which is only exacerbated by the Delaware windfall. Crowds here are small, purses are small and the business hasn't found a way to bring young people into the game.

But, why run the spots in the midst of a gubernatorial campaign - unless they're intended to run interference for Sauerbrey, to make the case for slots without forcing her to take a favorable public position, and to help her get elected by people motivated by Glendening's intransigence on the issue?

Also, it raises this question: Has she given assurances to racetrack people that, if elected, she'll take care of them?

"Absolutely not," Joseph De Francis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, owner of Pimlico and Laurel race courses, was saying yesterday. "She has said nothing to me in private that she hasn't said in public. She's said she doesn't like gambling or slots, and she isn't predisposed to allowing them. But she knows the economic importance of racing, and she sees all that money leaving the state."

So why run the ads now, if there's no public vote on slots and

not much difference in the candidates' thinking?

"During an election," says De Francis, "people pay attention. A lot of politicians are doing a lot of posturing, and we've got an issue absolutely vital to the survival of our industry and to 17,000 jobs and $1 billion a year to the Maryland economy. It's a good time to educate people on critical facts.

"All we've asked from anyone is a fair hearing. The last time any study was done was the fall of '95, the famous Tydings Commission. And they did their work before Delaware had slots. We now have three years of history, three years of data, and the governor doesn't want anyone to take another look, which is outrageous."

De Francis, naturally, was not thrilled by yesterday's Sun poll showing Glendening with an eight-point lead over Sauerbrey. The election's only five days away. Previous polls showed the two in a dead-heat finish.

"Most of the political ads have been negative and mean-spirited," De Francis says, "which is why we made our ads lighthearted. But the intent is to educate people so they can tell their own legislator, 'Why are we letting all this money go to Delaware?' And maybe that gives us a chance to get some kind of hearing.

"I'm certainly not trying to be a front man for Sauerbrey. She hasn't embraced us - although, unlike the governor, she hasn't made slots sound like a plague of locusts. I'm just trying to be a front man for 17,000 people in my industry who may be looking at public assistance or a new career if we don't save the tracks."

Which would give all those folks in Delaware one more reason to thank Maryland.

Pub Date: 10/29/98

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