The bitter debate over slot machine gambling that has dominated Maryland's legislative agenda for three years has emerged as the first real fissure between the two leading Democratic candidates for governor in 2006.
On back-to-back days last week, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan could be found preaching about the evils that expanded gambling would bring to Maryland.
Douglas M. Duncan said slots would lead to a harmful, Las Vegas-style economy.
(Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
One afternoon, he stood with anti-slots activists at a news conference in Annapolis, warning that legalization of the machines would usher in a Las Vegas-style economy, where future generations of Maryland children "sit in a cage, changing money for people" instead of pursuing careers in biotechnology and other more lucrative fields. The next morning, Duncan unapologetically served up the same message at a breakfast with a Washington area business group that supports slots.
Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, meanwhile, met privately last week with the legislature's leading slots proponent, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), and pledged his help in passing a slots bill this session that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) would sign into law.
O'Malley said afterward that he does not believe that revenue from slots will bring economic salvation to Maryland. But after three years of heated debate, he said, state leaders need to strike a "reasonable compromise" and move on to other priorities.
"I'd sure like to get this issue behind us," O'Malley said.
The contrast could prove significant as Democrats size up their two likely gubernatorial candidates. Primaries are rarely dominated by issue differences, and to this point, Duncan and O'Malley backers have stressed their candidates' charisma, records of accomplishment and more esoteric qualities.
Duncan aides, however, said the issue provides an opening against O'Malley, who has enjoyed a sizable lead in early polling.
"O'Malley is standing with Ehrlich on this issue, and it's the wrong place to be," Duncan said in an interview.
Bills pending in the Maryland General Assembly would steer more than $700 million a year in anticipated state proceeds from slots to school construction and other educational needs.
Polling has shown that most Marylanders support legalization of the machines, particularly if the money is used for education. But some of the most fervent opposition comes from liberal Democrats, who tend to dominate the party's primary process.
"One way to view this is a move by Duncan to solidify his suburban Washington base," said James Gimpel, a political science professor at the University of Maryland.
Prince George's is home to more registered Democrats than any other jurisdiction in the state and is seen as crucial to Duncan's prospects in a matchup against O'Malley, who is far better known in the expansive Baltimore media market.
A recent poll underscored what Duncan has to gain on the issue.
The poll, conducted in January by Gonzales/Boyd Political Consulting, found that 40 percent of likely Democratic primary voters said they would be more likely to vote for a gubernatorial candidate who opposes slots. Twenty-six percent said that opposition to slots would make them less likely to vote for the candidate, and 34 percent said the issue made no difference.
The figures tilted even more heavily toward a slots opponent in the Washington region, where 47 percent said they would be more likely to support such a candidate and 19 percent said it would make them less likely to do so.
In an interview, O'Malley said he has not tried to "game out" the political implications of supporting slots legislation.
He said he considers slots revenue "a pretty morally bankrupt way" to fund education. But O'Malley said he could support placing slot machines at horse-racing tracks, where gambling already occurs.
"I have a real difficult time splitting the moral atom," he said.
Some political observers suggest that O'Malley's position could cost him votes in the Democratic primary but ultimately would make him a stronger candidate against Ehrlich, a major slots proponent, in the 2006 general election.
"O'Malley's position is not identical to Ehrlich's, but it's close enough that it takes gambling off the table," said Tom Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County who has ties to O'Malley. "Duncan's slots position gives him an advantage in the Democratic primary but hurts him in the general election, if he is the nominee."