Bid for slots at racetracks faces long political odds

January 06, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

DEL. HOWARD "Pete" Rawlings finds himself caught between the false piety and the empty politics surrounding legalized gambling. The politics are Thomas V. Mike Miller's, the piety Parris Glendening's. The likely result is the state of Maryland taking another financial bath.

When the General Assembly convenes this week, Rawlings will launch a bid to let voters decide the future of slot machines in Maryland. Miller, the Senate president, thinks this is bad for Democrats seeking re-election. He will stand in Rawlings' way. Glendening, the governor, offers empty platitudes about the immorality of gambling. His language flies in the face of his own history, but never mind. The governor will stand by his hypocrisy and thus stand in the way of Rawlings' efforts.

At stake is millions of dollars leaving Maryland for the racetracks of Delaware and West Virginia, which shout hosannas every time they go to the bank. Their racetracks are flourishing with slot machines, and Maryland's tracks are empty and its racing industry twitching with hunger.

"It amazes me," Rawlings was saying Friday, "how we're having such a hard time doing this."

Sitting in his Baltimore legislative office and preparing for the Assembly session, he had already circulated among House members his bill seeking a public referendum on legalizing slot machines at Maryland tracks. At stake is the future of Maryland racing, but that's only part of it. Up to 50 percent of all slot machine proceeds would go directly to the state's public schools and libraries.

Imagine the possibilities; imagine the empty self-righteousness standing in its way.

"Clearly," Rawlings said, "there's a growing momentum for slots. All it does is add gambling where it already exists. It's almost like adding Keno to the lottery. And we've seen what's happened in Delaware and West Virginia, where they're depositing tens of millions of dollars in the bank every month."

Glendening, who was Prince George's County executive in a time when casino-type gambling dotted the landscape there (and gambling interests contributed to Glendening campaigns), has taken a strong stand against slots - but only after two things happened: He got caught with his hand in Joe DeFrancis' back pocket (DeFrancis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, took the rap for slipping illegal campaign money to Glendening); and then the mayor of Baltimore, Kurt L. Schmoke, said Glendening had lied to him, first promising to use money from legalized gambling for public schools and then claiming that such a conversation never happened.

So we arrive at the new General Assembly session. Some analysts, noting Maryland's increasing economic anxieties, have imagined a bright new possibility for passage of slots. Rawlings, putting aside false hope, calls it a long shot.

"Mike Miller says it won't pass in the Senate," Rawlings said. (Miller did not return our call to his office.) "He's afraid it might jeopardize some Democratic senators' re-election chances. I don't believe that's the case, but he's in charge over there. Everything I've seen says there's a strong Democratic turnout when gambling's on the ballot. Plus, this bill gives the public a choice. It doesn't expose legislators by leaving the vote to them.

"And I've made this argument to Miller, but he's a very stubborn person. I've made the argument and made it, but he believes some senators in the Washington area could be hurt. That's the only argument he's making - that it might hurt some senators' re-election chances.

"And I don't want to belittle this. As a leader, that's one of his concerns. I want to be fair to him on that. But it overlooks the possibility of all that money going to help schools and libraries instead of going to Delaware and West Virginia, and wherever. Ultimately, we're going to be surrounded by gambling, and we'll have to have it. But until we realize it, we're losing all this money."

So the gambling debate goes on. It goes on as millions are wagered on the state lottery and its offshoots, and millions more on horse racing, and millions more on last week's Maryland football game, and millions more on this week's Ravens game. It is, for many, simple human instinct and simple adult option. But slot machines at racetracks? The political self-righteousness is suffocating.

"And I don't see much hope down the road," Rawlings said. At the moment, the leading contender in next fall's gubernatorial race is Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

"And she's now saying she opposes slots," Rawlings said. "I shuddered when I heard that. I thought she'd establish some independence from this guy [Glendening]."

For many reasons, she may regret it if she does not.

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