Foes of gambling brace for high-stakes battle

National activist visits Cumberland as slots are considered

November 06, 2001|By Greg Garland and Chris Guy | Greg Garland and Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

CUMBERLAND - The same day last week that a powerful state legislator disclosed plans to push for legalizing slot machines in Maryland, Tom Grey was heading for this city in the mountains to preach about the ills of gambling.

The timing couldn't have been better for Grey, a Methodist minister from Rockford, Ill., who heads the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion.

For months, Grey, 61, has been sounding the alarm that gambling interests are seriously targeting Maryland. He has repeatedly visited the state to build up a network of activists to fight to keep slot machines out of Maryland.

He has advised citizen and church groups in Cumberland, Baltimore, the Eastern Shore city of Cambridge and in southern Prince George's County. In each community, at least some residents fear that plans for horse racing tracks, off-track betting parlors or other major commercial developments could be transformed into casinos if slots gambling is legalized in Maryland.

Grey contends that such fears are warranted. With the state facing serious budget woes, and Gov. Parris N. Glendening - a resolute opponent of gambling - leaving office after next year, the pressure is building to allow slots, he said.

"The war is on now for Maryland," Grey said. "Everyone is getting into position. We're treating this as if the tanks are on the outskirts of the state."

Foes of gambling began meeting months ago, plotting strategy, updating mailing lists and comparing notes - bracing for a fight they knew was coming even before Del. Howard P. Rawlings announced his latest push for slots.

Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat, is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He said he will try to get a constitutional amendment placed on the ballot next fall to allow slots at selected locations in Maryland.

"It's obvious that the gambling industry has targeted Maryland all along," said Barbara Knickelbein, a leader in the anti-gambling group NOcasiNO Maryland. "We know we've got to get stronger and more organized."

The prospect of slots being legalized is a major concern to people such as the Rev. Gregory B. Perkins of St. Paul Community Baptist Church in Baltimore.

Perkins heads the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Baltimore and Vicinity, with a membership of 240 churches, synagogues and mosques in the Baltimore area. Grey has met with the group several times, most recently in May.

Perkins said he worries that allowing slots at the tracks could lead to casinos at the Inner Harbor, which gambling interests would view as a prime venue.

To Perkins, that would be disastrous for inner-city residents already coping with the problems of poverty, crime and drug addiction.

"We will engage in the mother of all protests to keep it from happening," said Perkins.

The opposition to gambling was just as strong when Grey, Knickelbein and others spoke at a community meeting in Cumberland on Thursday night. The meeting at Centre Street United Methodist Church drew about 100 people.

The group that sponsored the forum - Citizens Against the Race Course - is fighting a thoroughbred horse track proposed in Little Orleans, a few miles east of Cumberland. The opponents believe the track is a stalking-horse for a slots casino.

Grey urged the group to keep the heat on local politicians and to insist that any gubernatorial candidate adopt the same strong stance against gambling as Glendening.

"They are not going to see the light until they feel the heat, so you are in the heat-generating business from now until the 2002 election," Grey said.

A Dartmouth graduate and a former Army infantryman who saw combat in Vietnam, Grey founded his anti-gambling coalition in 1992, when a casino was approved near Galena, Ill., his hometown at the time. He crisscrosses the country helping to defeat gambling initiatives, drawing a $3,000-a-month salary from his group's $150,000 annual budget.

Grey ticked off for his Cumberland audience a litany of social problems he said gambling aggravates, such as addiction, broken homes, suicides, increased crime and bankruptcy filings.

"It's poor public policy," Grey said. "What kind of government makes losers out of its citizens?"

He suggested that it makes no sense to build a racetrack in Allegany County unless the owner expects slots to be legalized. Tracks around the country are having a hard time economically, he said.

William R. Rickman Jr. is proposing the track near Cumberland. The low-key construction and gambling magnate from Montgomery County owns a Wilmington, Del., horse track where 2,000 slot machines are generating $20 million a month. Last year, he bought Ocean Downs, a harness racing track near Ocean City, for $5.1 million.

He also plans an off-track betting parlor in Cambridge. He won local zoning approval in record time Oct. 24 for a OTB parlor in a half-empty shopping center along U.S. 50.

The project has sparked fierce opposition.

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