Maryland governor candidates hope to win big with casinos

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2010

PERRYVILLE, MD. -- Gov. Martin O'Malley strode Tuesday into a shell of a building here in Maryland's northeastern corner that, if all goes according to plan, will be transformed into the state's first slots casino just a few weeks before Election Day.

"I can almost hear the ding, ding, ding," said O'Malley (D) as he gazed at faint markings on the concrete floor showing where some of the 1,500 slot machines will be placed.

The governor's visit to the site of Hollywood Casino Perryville, just off Interstate 95 near the Susquehanna River, was a testament to how prominent and contentious the issue of slot-machine gambling has become in Maryland's gubernatorial race.

Former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who tried unsuccessfully to bring slots to Maryland during his four years in office, said last week that O'Malley had made "a mess" of the program's implementation.

The Perryville casino is the only one of five slots sites authorized by voters in 2008 that has not been hindered by legal, procedural or construction delays.

"Of course O'Malley has gone to Cecil County to talk about slots," Ehrlich spokesman Andy Barth said of the governor's visit to Perryville. "He can't go anywhere else."

Barth pledged that Ehrlich would make a "fast-track" opening of the state's remaining casinos "a top priority" upon returning to office in January, although he offered few specifics about what the former governor would do differently.

Ehrlich, who was unavailable for comment Tuesday, has previously criticized the low percentage of proceeds that operators are allowed to retain and said a referendum was a "very sloppy" way to proceed with a slots program.

While O'Malley was in Cecil County on Tuesday, a trial that could affect the fate of a planned facility in Anne Arundel County -- the state's largest site -- continued in a courtroom there, with more than a dozen lawyers representing varied interests taking part in the proceedings.

O'Malley acknowledged to reporters that the state's slots program had endured some "bumps and bruises and other hurdles," which he attributed largely to getting started during the recession, when few gaming companies had access to the kind of capital needed to build casinos.

"It couldn't have been a more difficult time to move forward with this, but we are moving forward," he said. "Certainly, we've made a lot more progress during this four years than was made during the four years prior."

When voters approved the 2008 ballot measure, which authorized up to 15,000 machines at the five sites, it seemed a pretty clear-cut political victory for O'Malley.

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