Rawlings no gambler, but he still backs slots

March 15, 2001|By Michael Olesker

ONCE, ON A cruise in the middle of the ocean, Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings found himself standing next to a slot machine. He tossed in a quarter. The machine did not pay off, and Rawlings walked away. One time he went to Las Vegas. He might have gambled an entire dollar before quitting.

Yet there he was, Monday in Annapolis, testifying on behalf of a bill he's sponsoring to bring slot machines to Maryland and -- potentially -- change the face of thoroughbred racing, of public school financing and of money for vulnerable public libraries.

"Me?" Rawlings was saying Tuesday. "No, I hardly gamble at all. I was on one of those cruises, a big Norwegian line, and they had slot machines on the boat. I was standing next to my cousin while she was playing, and I threw in a quarter. That was it. I might have spent a dollar on a slot machine in Las Vegas. That was it. Over the course of a year, I might buy five lottery tickets. But that's it."

So why is this man, who claims no gambling instincts, and no meaningful connections to organized gambling interests, pushing so hard to legalize slot machines in Maryland?

"I don't like [slots] for myself," Rawlings said, "because I know it's sheer chance. But that's my personal choice. My mother was different. In her later years, she got a lot of comfort out of going to Atlantic City. She enjoyed her family, and she was always going to the movies. But Atlantic City was her diversion. She and a bunch of her friends would go. I don't think this made her a flawed person. I think it was a person having a great time a few times a year."

In Annapolis, this is not always the language Rawlings hears about his gambling initiatives. At Monday's hearing before a House Ways and Means subcommittee, a few people described fears of increased numbers of gambling addicts if slot machines are legalized.

Rawlings' response? Gambling is "the least offensive addiction. It's slightly over 1 percent" of those who gamble. Also, his bill proposes increased funding -- several million dollars -- for addiction counseling and support.

Others foes in Annapolis, however, describe gambling as a smarmy way for the state to raise money.

"How about raising taxes?" Rawlings asked. "Is that considered slimy? That's the alternative way to raise money for schools and libraries. That's how the state lottery got introduced, as a way to avoid raising taxes. I don't hear people describing that as slimy."

Rawlings doesn't deal in morality lectures, understanding the hypocrisy behind them in a state that not only runs a vast lottery but spends millions enticing its citizens to take a chance on it through broadcast advertisements. Add to that a variety of gambling activities around the state: a racetrack industry that employs an estimated 17,000 people, bingo games at church halls, casino nights at volunteer fire halls, tip jars at American Legion posts, on and on.

Add to that a governor who tried to become virgin again after illegal racetrack money found its way into his campaign coffers. It's the same Parris Glendening who winked at casinos when he was Prince George's County executive, who has OK'd increased state lottery ventures since he became governor, and who was never reluctant to take gambling interest money until it was discovered that some of it was slipped to him under the table.

So we deal with facts: Maryland's racetracks, previously struggling, are poised at the edge of a cliff since Delaware and West Virginia added slot machines at their tracks. Both states are taking in hundreds of millions of dollars, much of it from Maryland bettors.

Take a little drive up to Delaware some day. Notice two things: the number of Maryland license tags on the parking lots and the number of retirees at the slot machines, enjoying an afternoon's diversion.

"The opponents," Rawlings said, "paint it as poor, inner-city people wasting their money. That's not the case. Most people at Delaware Park, for example, are middle-class, middle-aged people who drive up for the day. They're nobody's addicts. And these states haven't seen a level of addiction that's become a public menace. The numbers are very small. and we'd support them with this legislation."

Rawlings estimates that slot machines could generate up to $400 million a year for public schools and libraries. They would also bring big money into Maryland tracks that currently lands in Delaware and West Virginia, whose racing industries are thriving since the arrival of slots.

Are racetrack people spurring Rawlings' efforts?

"I have not sought, nor do I have any relationship with, the gaming interest," Rawlings said. "Look at my fund-raisers, look at my campaign support. Hardly anybody who's affiliated with gambling. Maybe Joe De Francis [owner of Pimlico and Laurel], but he's been coming to my fund-raisers even before I sponsored this bill."

Has it got a chance?

"It's inevitable," Rawlings said. "And it's beginning to dawn on people."

Even people who haven't got the slightest interest in gambling themselves.

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