Gambling foes press case with Ehrlich

Those against casinos, slots seek stances of gubernatorial candidates

Critical issue in Md., some say

April 19, 2002|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

As Maryland's gubernatorial race begins to gain momentum, anti-gambling activists are knocking on candidates' doors to press their case against slots.

Three activists met privately Wednesday with Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the GOP candidate in the governor's race, although they failed to persuade him to drop his support for allowing slots at Maryland's horse-racing tracks.

"In a pie-in-the-sky world, we would have loved to have changed his mind," said Kim Roman of NoCasiNo Maryland. "But that's not going to happen."

Roman and NoCasinNo co-chairwoman Barbara Knickelbein attended the half-hour-long meeting with Ehrlich, along with Carol Colbeth of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Ehrlich's position on slots is at odds with that taken by Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. She made one of her strongest statements on the issue to date at a news conference in Silver Spring this week.

"I've been very clear that I'm against slots," Townsend said. "I do not think they're the answer to any of the problems we have in Maryland."

Townsend warned that slots hurt the poor and tend to attract more crime to areas. She said that Maryland is "progressive enough" to fund its needs in other ways.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley has not announced whether he will enter the governor's race but a spokesman, Stephen J. Kearney, said the mayor supports allowing slots at racetracks.

Ehrlich said yesterday that he sees slots as a way to help Maryland's ailing horse-racing industry, while also providing revenue for education system reforms.

He said he favors allowing state-run slots at Maryland's thoroughbred race tracks and at off-track betting parlors. He said voters in a community with such racing facilities should be allowed to "opt out" if they don't want slots.

Ehrlich said he would oppose any attempt to put a casino at Baltimore's Inner Harbor or elsewhere. "I'm supportive of slots at tracks and not of casinos," he said. "They are very different issues."

Knickelbein said support for slots could cost Ehrlich at the polls among voters who see gambling expansion as one of the most critical issues facing the state.

But Ehrlich said polls indicate that most Maryland voters - while they oppose opening the state to casinos - find slots at tracks acceptable.

Ira C. Cooke, a Maryland lobbyist who has represented gambling-company clients in the past, said he believes Ehrlich's support for slots at the tracks will not cost him many votes.

"I think that the Maryland citizenry is prepared to accept limited slots, with the money dedicated to education or the environment or some other pressing social need," Cooke said. "It can be a candidate enhancement."

Ehrlich said he thinks that slots are inevitable regardless of who is elected.

Knickelbein said Ehrlich told her group Wednesday that Townsend "will eventually give in to the need for slots" because of the state's pressing budget problems. Ehrlich argued that he could do a better job of regulating and controlling any expansion of gambling, she said.

Knickelbein said allowing slots at tracks inevitably would lead to a push for casinos and for legalized slots at bars and other venues.

"Once they open the floodgates, we know what will happen," Knickelbein said.

With Gov. Parris N. Glendening leaving office, gambling is expected to be a major issue in this year's gubernatorial race. He has been a strong foe of gambling.

Knickelbein said her group plans to question all the gubernatorial candidates about their positions on slots and gambling expansion.

"We intend to notify our network of voters around the state if someone is sitting on the fence, or if they say they will veto any [gambling] legislation," she said.

Knickelbein said anti-gambling forces have not met with Townsend, who has not formally announced her candidacy.

However, Knickelbein said that she and Tom Grey, who heads the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion, met with Townsend's top aides in February.

"We had very strong indications that she is strong on continuing her stance against gambling expansion," Knickelbein said.

Sun staff writer Howard Libit contributed to this article.

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