Prince George’s County is ground zero in well-funded battle over gaming

October 27, 2012

The executive standing behind the job fair table had plenty to offer: spa receptionist, advertising account manager, cocktail server — 112 jobs in all. But when Sung Hua Bessell, a 26-year-old student at Prince George’s Community College, looked at the list, he realized there was a problem.

“They’re all in Las Vegas.”

Anticipating the concern, Ro Barnes, a human resources executive at MGM Resorts, was prepared to pivot from jobs to politics:

“We want to bring jobs to the community,” she said. “When you go to the polls, don’t forget us!”

She was referring to Question 7, the measure on the Nov. 6 ballot in Maryland that will decide whether to allow a Las Vegas-style casino in Prince George’s County. The referendum has touched off a non-stop advertising war on television and radio fueled by $70 million, which has already eclipsed the amounts spent by candidates in the past two gubernatorial elections combined.

Maryland referendum primer

MGM, which is angling to build the casino at National Harbor, has almost single-handedly financed the support, paying for robocalls featuring prize fighter Oscar De La Hoya and ads with actress Eva Longoria and former Redskin LaVar Arrington.

The massive company, with properties from the Vegas strip to Macau, has also gotten creative as it tries to build goodwill in Prince George’s, which has become ground zero in the battle.

Last weekend, MGM provided lunch for volunteers in Capitol Heights at Central High School cleanup day. And it sponsored the job fair Friday at FedEx field (the Washington Redskins have endorsed the expanded gambling measure, which would also allow table games, such as blackjack and roulette, at the state’s already approved slots sites).

About 200 people showed up and got tips on updating resumes and LinkedIn profiles. They walked away with professional headshot photographs, leads from area companies looking to hire, MGM bags and brochures that read: “Question #7 Means Good JOBS [and] Better SCHOOLS Right Here in Maryland.”

“We felt like there was a need to talk about what we are as an employer and what we’re proposing to bring if we’re successful in the referendum,” said LaDawndre Stinson, the company’s director of human resources.

MGM has shelled out more than $29 million to a ballot-issue committee supporting the measure. The developer of National Harbor and a group that includes Caesars Entertainment have also contributed. Penn National, which wants to build a casino at Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington and owns a casino in Charles Town, W.Va., has put in $34 million to pay for the opposition campaign. Analysts have said Penn National faces a financial hit if another large casino opens in Maryland.

The campaigns also are targeting key, voter-rich jurisdictions in Baltimore, where Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) is backing gaming expansion, and Montgomery County, where County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) has heeded state leaders’ call to back gaming despite opposition from many Montgomery voters.

But while the outcome will be based on the statewide vote, the Prince George’s casino is not supposed to move forward if a majority of those voting in the county oppose the referendum, under a non-binding provision included in a law passed in August.

That has made the majority African American county, which has long complained of being ignored by commercial businesses despite the fact that it has some of the nation’s most affluent and highly educated black residents, a focal point of the fight.

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), a onetime gaming opponent, says he is all for MGM’s plans. He wants a destination resort in his county, one he believes will attract high-end restaurants, elegant boutiques and Broadway-style shows.

Baker has put the full weight of his political organization and county government behind the effort, dispatching staff members to community debates, regularly using county e-mail to urge voters to support Question 7 and working with the state’s Democratic political establishment to push for the referendum.

“It’s about jobs; it’s about economic development,” he said.

A recent Washington Post poll showed Maryland voters deadlocked on the measure.

Penn National has not held back in its efforts. Some money has gone to consultants who have lined up people such as former County Council member Tom Dernoga (D-Laurel), a longtime gaming opponent, who said he was being paid $1,000 for organizing his voting precinct. Like dozens of other precinct captains, he would get another $1,000 if the precinct votes no and another $1,000 if the entire county rejects gaming.

Forest Heights mayor Jacqueline Goodall, chairwoman of the anti-gaming campaign, is also on the payroll: “First of all, I needed a job,” she said.

But she is also worried that her small struggling municipality in the shadow of National Harbor could get the fallout from a casino — addiction, crime and other ills. There are five officers on the town police force, and if a casino locates nearby, “we will need more,” Goodall said. She wonders if the expense is worth whatever financial benefits the county might gain.

Gerron Levi, an attorney and former Democratic state delegate, has made peace with the idea that Penn National Gaming is bankrolling gaming opponents.

“For the first time, we actually have a chance to get our message out, to be heard,” she said as she handed out leaflets one rainy morning at the Greenbelt Metro station.

“Sometimes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” she said.

Chris Richardson, 35, who works at the Department of Defense, was waiting out the rain at the station where Levi and nearly a dozen others were handing out anti-gaming leaflets.

“They said they would put the money in education with the lottery and slots, and we saw how that turned out,” Richardson said. “The point is we have been lied to many times.”

Just a few weeks ago, Felicia Turner, 20, a student at Prince George’s Community College, was working at McDonald’s. But now she’s a $10-an-hour foot soldier, going door to door urging voters to support Question 7.

The referendum, she asserted to a resident of Bowie recently, would create thousands of new jobs, increase the county tax base and help lagging public schools. She says the casino that MGM Resorts wants to build at National Harbor will help Prince George’s and the state.

But Eddie Reese, 49, wasn’t buying it. “There are other ways we can create jobs, other things we can do. This county has come too far to go backwards,” Reese said.

Nearby, Turner ran into Lumpy Johnson, 62, who lives in Arnold in Anne Arundel County but was visiting Kim Boddie, 56.

Boddie is all in. “Why go to Delaware to gamble?” she said. But Johnson wasn’t so sure.

“I am in the middle. I am not sure how I will vote.”

Sfaff writer John Wagner contributed to this report.

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