CUMBERLAND - Eileen Steele has become a frequent bar-hopper in recent weeks. In one day, the retired septuagenarian college professor with fiery hair and a fur coat purchased for $15 at the local Goodwill says she went to 67 bars and clubs in Allegany County.
"And nobody gave me anything to drink," she said with a laugh.
This Frostburg grandmother has taken it upon herself to rally support to legalize video poker machines in the mountains of Western Maryland. She fears - make that knows - that every day her neighbors drive over the blue steel bridge into West Virginia where they drop money into its coffers as they gamble in that state's bars and clubs.
Legalize that type of gambling on this side of the Potomac, regulate it - and have money to buy the firetrucks and school supplies and other items the county can't afford, she argues.
She says it is money sorely needed in this depressed area of Maryland, once home to textile mills and tire manufacturing and glass production but now a place with an ever-shrinking population.
"It makes no sense to us to let this money float across the border," said Steele, 73, known around here as "Doc," in deference to her doctorate and her nearly three decades as an education professor at Frostburg State University. She has also taught grade school, owned bars and motels and worked in securities.
For years, illegal video poker machines whose owners paid cash winnings were out in the open in just about every drinking establishment in the county. And for years, the law looked the other way.
Since 2000, when the state's attorney's crackdown forced hundreds of machines to be locked away, sold or seized, video poker - and the added cash the games had pumped into the businesses - has gone underground. While hardly common anymore, residents here say they have seen machines in some small-town bars.
One Cumberland club owner, who asked not to be named because he feared legal ramifications, said he had brought back his machines until last week when he was warned they could be seized if he continued to permit gambling. The newly elected state's attorney, Michael O. Twigg, said his office investigates all claims of illegal machines - and has one open investigation.
"We want everything legal and above board," said Mary C. Miltenberger, a local activist who supports Steele's effort.
At its meeting today, Allegany County's commissioners will discuss Steele's proposal - one that boldly predicts $27 million a year could be shared by business owners and the local government if they legalize the poker machines. Several residents say Steele's estimate is outrageously high, though they aren't sure how much money could be raised.
Though her proposal is likely to be shot down, it illustrates the desperation of the region's residents and business owners, many of whom say they are on the verge of going under.
Feeling the pinch
On Tuesday afternoon, not long after 2 p.m., about a dozen men, some in their 40s, the rest mostly older, gather around the enormous bar at the Eagles Club on Cumberland's Mechanic Street. In front of most of them are little scraps of paper from the club's tip jar - a form of gambling, similar to an instant lottery ticket, that is legal inside such nonprofit clubs.
Postman Jim Rapson, an Eagles trustee, says losing the machines has been costly.
"It's cut our business probably $1,000, $1,200 a week," he said. "We take in $6,600 and pay out $10,000 a month. How long can you stay open doing that? You cannot keep operating at a deficit and keep open - as much as you want to.
"People have to realize in a small town where the economy is pathetic - we've gone from 1962 [when] we had 52,000 people in Cumberland, now we have 20,000 - we're not doing anything to keep anything open, all because of some stupid law that says you can't have these video machines," Rapson said. "We had nickel machines that weren't hurting anybody."
The club used to give some of its gambling revenue to charities - holiday toys for the needy, disabled children, school groups, the heart fund. "We can't afford to donate to these organizations anymore," said trustee Ronnie Lease, a private process server.
Two clubs that bore the Republican Party name have changed their names in the past two years because they can no longer afford to pay a stipend to the party.
The story isn't much different at the Frostburg Moose Lodge, where they have lost thousands of dollars a month since the machines were put away. Says bartender Mary Ann Riley: "It's not stopping them. They're just going elsewhere and doing it. They're just not doing it here."
Listening to people like Rapson and Riley inspired Steele, who ran an unsuccessful campaign against then-speaker of the House of Delegates Casper R. Taylor Jr. in 1998, to take on the poker machines as her latest campaign.