Pull levers in Del. for cash, in city for hope

September 14, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

NEWARK, Del. -- In Baltimore, they go to the polls today, but at Delaware Park Racetrack they pull a different kind of lever. The slot machines go ching-a-ling-a-ling, and the Maryland license tags are all over the parking lots, and the money rolls in by the carload.

In Baltimore, the candidates for mayor stagger toward the primary campaign finish line, offering one last, exhausted round of promises to improve the schools and clean up the neighborhoods, while hoping nobody notices a projected $153 million deficit around the corner, which is the city's real roll of the dice.

In Delaware, they're doing about $3 billion a year in slot machine action. They've modernized the schools with this money, and paid for police, and there's money to build roads and spruce up neighborhoods, and they've rejuvenated their horse racing industry.

In Baltimore, nobody, not even the candidates for mayor, knows what to do if that deficit turns out as dramatic as anticipated. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke thought he had an idea to raise money, but it went away. He thought he had a deal on slots at Pimlico Race Course a few years ago, but his famous clash with Parris N. Glendening hardened the governor's intransigence, and his hypocrisy, and so the next mayor of Baltimore will have to invent new forms of bookkeeping to keep his city out of the poorhouse.

At Delaware Park, they've just added a slot machine room. The old one had grown too crowded with all those who emerge from their cars, and their buses and vans, who arrive here from Maryland and Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

So slots are on two levels now, with escalators running up and down, and bright lights and carpet and the sound of fresh money. The crowd is mostly people in their 50s and 60s and older. If your image of gambling has something to do with Bogey and tuxedos and a woman like Ingrid Bergman showing up, forget it. These folks look like retired insurance adjusters seeking a little diversion between naps.

In their Bermuda shorts and T-shirts, lots of them play 25 cents at a time, and some spring for a buck or two, but the money is continuous. Like most forms of gambling, slot machines are a sucker's game. Winning's a long-shot. But these are grown-ups, and it's an afternoon's entertainment, not an investment.

The governor of Maryland has willfully failed to make that distinction. He's had a smug, patronizing tone to his argument, a sense that the people who want to gamble are throwing away their dissolute lives on an afternoon's fun when they should be investing their spare cash in municipal bonds.

The governor, turning his back on Pimlico, somehow finds it immoral to add gambling where gambling exists. On his watch, the state adds lottery ventures, but nobody's supposed to notice this. On his watch, there are 7,000 lottery outlets, but never mind. In his political campaigns, and in his tenure as Prince George's County when it was the casino gambling center of the state, he profited from gambling, but never mind.

Why bring this up now? Because such hypocritical arguments have helped keep the city of Baltimore broke, and today voters go to the polls thinking this can be turned around merely by a change of names at City Hall.

Gambling is bad for families, the governor warns. He describes the desperation of addicts. He ought to take a look at Delaware tracks.

At Delaware Park, the folks stroll in and have lunch at one of the race course's restaurants. Some wander out to the grandstand where the horses run. Or they head for the bank of television monitors beneath the stands where they study the racing forms. There's a play area to drop off the kids if they've brought them along.

And the biggest crowds gather in the slot machine areas. About two-thirds of the machines are in use on this weekend afternoon. The energy level is strictly low-key. And, if people are here with legitimate gambling problems -- well, at least they had to make an effort to get here, instead of stumbling into some lottery machine every time they hit a convenience store or gas station or bowling alley.

One day, Parris Glendening will be gone, and then maybe there can be a second look at slot machines at the Maryland tracks. Up here, they're bringing in a fortune. The atmosphere's relaxed and convivial, and the play is mainly a buck or two at a time.

And, with the city of Baltimore going to the polls today with a $153 million projected deficit around the corner, and hoping that one person can turn this around, a visit to Delaware Park can't help but raise images of what still, one day, might be.

Pub Date: 9/14/99

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