Early bet in 2002 race

Track owner raising money for Townsend

De Francis sought slots

November 03, 1999|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

After working aggressively to unseat her last year, Maryland racetrack owner Joseph A. De Francis is raising money for Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a likely candidate in the 2002 governor's race.

In 1998, De Francis backed Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey over the Democratic team of Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Townsend largely because of the governor's staunch opposition to the legalization of slot machines at Maryland racetracks.

De Francis is listed as one of 11 co-chairmen of a $1,000-a-head fund-raiser for Townsend in downtown Baltimore on Nov. 17. Glendening is honorary chairman of the event.

Despite early backing from De Francis and others in the racing industry, Townsend has given no indication that she will diverge from Glendening on the volatile slots issue. She said she has not discussed the slots issue with racing industry officials.

"As far as I can see [slots are] not the way to go for Maryland," Townsend said in an interview this week. "I think that the governor and I have the right position as far as building our racing industry."

De Francis, the majority owner of Laurel and Pimlico race courses, said yesterday his financial support for Townsend "has nothing to do with slots."

"The slots issue is off the table right now," De Francis said.

Rather, he said, Townsend deserved support because of her "outstanding" performance as lieutenant governor.

Townsend, in turn, applauded De Francis' decision this year to stop his public push for slots, at least for now.

"He's come around to a much more fruitful and productive way to improve the horse racing industry," she said of De Francis.

De Francis' support for Townsend is a stark reversal. Last year, he was a key fund-raiser for Sauerbrey, who had said she would consider slots as a last resort to help the racing industry.

Racing industry sources said that, with Townsend the early front-runner in the 2002 race, De Francis is simply bowing to political reality.

"Joe's going to do what he's got to do to be friendly with her so he can make his case on slots," said one industry official. "He'll do that with the feeling that sooner or later the state will come to the conclusion that there's nothing else the state can do" but endorse slots.

Glendening rejected slots in 1996. This year, the governor agreed to provide state assistance to the industry if the owners of Maryland's tracks spend more money to fix up their facilities and to promote the sport.

At the time, De Francis also agreed to stop campaigning for slots as the only way to improve Maryland racing.

Two neighboring states, Delaware and West Virginia, have legalized slot machines at horse tracks. The devices have generated vast profits for their owners and pumped millions of dollars into those states' racing purses.

De Francis and others in Maryland racing have said these increased purses will ultimately weaken the quality of racing here unless state tracks are given slots to compete.

His tracks spent hundreds of thousands of dollars last year on an advertising campaign promoting slots that was widely seen as an indirect attack on Glendening and Townsend.

De Francis was also a main organizer of a high-dollar "check swap" in which Marylanders affiliated with the racing industry sent political contributions to then-U.S. Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York, while his supporters sent donations to Sauerbrey.

The maneuver netted Sauerbrey at least $118,000 from New York givers and D'Amato at least $50,000 from Maryland.

Others in the racing industry have lined up with Townsend at this early stage of the governor's race.

Vincent T. "Cap" Mona, proprietor of an off-track betting facility in Port Tobacco in Charles County, and Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, are listed as members of the host committee for Townsend's Nov. 17 fund-raiser.

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