A union group that represents more than 300,000 area workers endorsed a referendum yesterday to legalize slot machine gambling in Maryland, an announcement that underscores the institutional support proponents will have in the lead-up to November's vote.
"If Marylanders have a choice between another round of tax hikes and voting for slots, I am very confident that they will vote for slots," said Fred D. Mason Jr., president of the Maryland State and District of Columbia AFL-CIO, standing alongside several other union leaders at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course.
The decision of the state's largest labor organization to back the measure is no surprise - the AFL-CIO has backed slots for years as a way to create union jobs. But it is a reminder that slots proponents will have the financial and organizational resources of some of the most powerful political forces in the state.
"We have a broad-based coalition with a wide reach, and we look forward to engaging in a calm, rational discussion around the state about the need for this referendum," said Frederick W. Puddester, chairman of For Maryland, For Our Future, a ballot committee that will lead the pro-slots effort. "I think it definitely shows momentum behind the referendum."
Internal divisions have become apparent among slots foes over who should take the lead in the fight against gambling, but the rollout of the pro-slots campaign has been a steady drumbeat of endorsements. In announcing their support yesterday, the labor organizations joined the Maryland Association of Counties, the Maryland Teachers Association, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and leading advocacy groups in horse racing.
That institutional support for slots has become a rallying cry for opponents. Charles Graham, chairman of Marylanders United to Stop Slots, said in a statement yesterday that it shows gambling is the cause of "big business ... big labor and the political insiders in Annapolis."
"Slots won't lower taxes or create good jobs; they will only make our tough economic times worse through increased crime, broken homes, addiction, corruption, bankruptcies and foreclosures," said Graham, who leads an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local in Prince George's County.
In November, voters will decide whether to amend the state constitution to allow 15,000 slot machines in five locations: one in Baltimore and one each in Anne Arundel, Allegany, Cecil and Worcester counties.
Opposing the referendum are two major groups, StopSlots Maryland and Maryland United to Stop Slots, a new committee to which Comptroller Peter Franchot has lent his high profile and political influence.
Aaron Meisner, the leader of StopSlots Maryland, said his group might work apart from what he called the "top-down" Marylanders United to Stop Slots, but that he doesn't believe the anti-slots camp is divided. His group will continue to build on grass-roots opposition to slots from religious, small-business, rural and progressive communities, he said.
Meisner said the support of such groups will not necessarily translate into support from the rank and file.
"If you look at who the members are, it really doesn't change the playing field very much," he said. "I have spoken with many teachers, and I can tell you that they're outraged by the fact that the Maryland Teachers Union would endorse this kind of proposition."
The teachers union has said that its internal polling of its members shows divisions similar to those indicated by polling on the slots question statewide, which a Sun survey found had the support of a majority of Marylanders.
Workers at Pimlico said yesterday that they would work to get the referendum passed.
"I've been for slots for a while," said Bill Nemethy, a server at a restaurant on the grounds of the racetrack. "I don't see why it's such a big problem for people to come in and spend money to entertain themselves."
Other union leaders present at the event said they would work hard to persuade members to vote for slots.
"The main reason we're doing this is because of jobs, and that's what the hell we're supposed to do," said Ernie Grecco, president of the Metropolitan Baltimore Council AFL-CIO. He noted that racetracks such as Pimlico are "wall to wall" union facilities. "We're going to be contacting our members and asking them in November to get out there and vote ... for slot machines."