The court-ordered referendum on the billion-dollar Arundel Mills casino has landed the project right in the middle of the bitterly fought contest between Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Both camps are looking to capitalize on the ruling last week by Maryland's highest court, which found in favor of plaintiffs seeking a referendum to let Anne Arundel voters decide whether a slots parlor will be built on mall grounds.
O'Malley, who supports the referendum, hopes his opposition to a casino at Arundel Mills will help him peel off like-minded Republicans in the large and growing county who supported Ehrlich in the past two elections. His campaign plans to stress Ehrlich's role in helping to bring slots to the mall, feeding the larger narrative they are working to construct: Ehrlich as lobbyist for special interests.
"It is important that the people of Anne Arundel County are heard on this," O'Malley said. "If I lived in northern Anne Arundel County, I would rather see the slots location go to a racetrack" — a reference to Laurel Park — "rather than a mall in a residential neighborhood."
But Ehrlich's camp says the debate cuts two ways. Aides to the former governor say the referendum is Exhibit A of O'Malley's foundering slots program; they say the issue will remind voters that the state is still waiting for the hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue expected from the five casinos approved two years ago.
"There is a recognition that the state has failed," said Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell. "Bob Ehrlich supported slots seven years ago. The only people making money off slots are the lobbyists and the slot machine manufacturers."
None of the five casinos has opened. A 1,500-machine slots parlor in Cecil County is scheduled to open this fall, and a 500-machine casino near Ocean City is to follow in December. Baltimore's 3,750-machine casino is mired in legal difficulties. Unable to find a developer for a casino in Western Maryland, the state issued a second request last week for proposals.
"It was Governor O'Malley's plan that led to this situation, not Bob Ehrlich's," Fawell said.
The plan proposed in 2003 by then-Governor Ehrlich would have barred county governments from entertaining zoning protests to slots parlors.
About 60 percent of Anne Arundel voters backed legalization of slots in the 2008 statewide vote, but an independent poll in March showed county voters evenly divided on a casino at Arundel Mills.
Dan Nataf, a political scientist at Anne Arundel Community College, says the mall location is responsible for the eroding support.
The outcome of the referendum "could hinge on the possibility that people who want to vote against it are a lot more passionate and more likely to turn out," said Nataf, director of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at the school.
Ehrlich's association with the casino stems from his work at the Baltimore office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, the law firm where he and several top aides have worked in their four years out of government.
David S. Cordish, the Baltimore-based developer who won the license to build a casino at Arundel Mills, contacted Ehrlich seeking advice, said David Hamilton, the firm's managing partner for Baltimore. The conversation led to The Cordish Cos. hiring Womble for "a relatively constrained time period" to provide "strategic and communications advice," Hamilton said.
The O'Malley campaign has seized on the relationship: Ehrlich "profited by representing the interests of the developer" is how deputy campaign manager Rick Abbruzzese put it.
Ehrlich won Anne Arundel County by a 2-to-1 margin in 2002 when he captured the governor's mansion. He won the Republican-leaning county again in 2006, but with a much narrower margin, and he lost the election to O'Malley.
Some analysts are not so sure that O'Malley stands to benefit from the referendum. Longtime Annapolis lobbyist W. Minor Carter, who once backed an effort to stop slots, says Cordish could hammer on the revenue lost to delays, arguing that killing the casino halts progress in the most lucrative part of the state's gaming program and leads to higher taxes.
"If you are worried about your financial status, you are going to vote for this" project, Carter said.
The casino, when fully operational, is expected to net the state $366 million annually, according to 2007 projections from nonpartisan legislative analysts.
Joseph Weinberg, vice president of gaming and resort development at The Cordish Cos., said his company will do "a thorough job" educating voters on the merits of the casino. He estimated that the delay caused by the petition drive has already cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue for public education and the county $30 million in local impact fees.
"The county would have been in the position to hire police officers, firefighters or teachers, or provide other critical services," he said.