Gambling Splits Maryland Democrats
By Charles Babington
Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke attacked Gov. Parris N. Glendening's credibility yesterday and endorsed a rival Democrat for governor, pushing the issue of legalized gambling to the forefront of Maryland's fall elections.
Schmoke's unabashed endorsement of Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann in the September Democratic primary is the most damaging blow yet to the reelection hopes of Glendening, who has failed to win widespread support among Maryland voters. But by unequivocally embracing legalized slot machines at Maryland's horse racing tracks, Schmoke and Rehrmann also may have handed a valuable campaign issue to Glendening, whose slogan is "No slots, no casinos, no exceptions."
Glendening began counterattacking before Schmoke even started his lunchtime speech at Baltimore's City Hall plaza. "You have one or two individuals in the entire state that are ready to sell their soul for casinos," the governor told reporters in Bethesda. "I'm not prepared to do that."
The political theater featured the improbable spectacle of a big-city mayor rejecting his party's gubernatorial incumbent in an election season when the economy is booming. It raises the likelihood of a divisive primary that could weaken Glendening, if he survives, for a tough general election against the likely GOP nominee, Ellen R. Sauerbrey.
Glendening aides have been glumly bracing for Schmoke's defection, and they privately predict that Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) will follow the mayor's lead in a month or so. A Curry aide said yesterday that no decision has been made.
Schmoke, who delivered an important endorsement to Glendening four years ago at the same spot, yesterday said Glendening probably can't win the general election and has broken faith with Baltimore voters.
"He is vulnerable, because he has shown himself to be unreliable, inconsistent and not credible," Schmoke said. The mayor repeated his contention that Glendening in 1996 privately agreed to support slot machines as a means of funding schools but later denied having made the agreement. "Our governor has lost both his memory and his vision," Schmoke told a sun-drenched crowd of several hundred.
Glendening has said he made no such promise to Schmoke.
Rehrmann has been vague about expanding gambling, sometimes saying she supports slots, other times saying she would "leave the door open." She did not mention slots in her brief speech yesterday. But she later told reporters she firmly supports slots at Maryland's racetracks, which include Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County, as a means of keeping them competitive with the slot machines at Delaware's racetracks.
"We have all this money leaving Maryland. It's going to Delaware," Rehrmann said. "And people are saying, `Hey, we ought to keep all that money in Maryland. We ought to have slots at the racetracks, and we ought to use that money for education.' "
Yesterday's pro-Rehrmann crowd included a busload of workers associated with the racing industry. With them was Joseph F. De Francis, owner of the tracks at Laurel and Pimlico and once a major contributor to Glendening. De Francis has campaigned for legalized slots, which would provide government revenue plus higher profits for his tracks.
Several analysts said Glendening will benefit if he can portray himself as the only candidate fending off casino companies, whose greatest revenue comes from slot machines.
"Taking on gambling interests -- despite the loss of important political allies -- for the larger good has got to be a major-league plus," said Keith Haller, a Bethesda-based pollster. "It's the only good news for Glendening surrounding this particular endorsement."
A January statewide poll found Marylanders almost evenly split on whether slot machines should be allowed at the tracks. But people who oppose slot machines tend to be more energetic and emphatic than those who favor them, said Brad Coker, whose company, Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research, conducted the poll.
"The intensity is always greatest among opponents," Coker said. "So from the intensity level, it might help Glendening. Frankly, Glendening would probably rather have the election be a referendum on slots than a referendum on Glendening."
That's the strategy Glendening seemed to pursue yesterday. Speaking outside Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, the governor told reporters that Schmoke "is over there . . . making a decision that was based, he readily acknowledges, on whether or not there was a commitment to bring casinos and slot machines throughout this state . . . I'm adamant about it. Our economy is booming. We're doing well. We do not need slot machines or casinos in this state . . . We're not going to make this another Atlantic City."
Several Montgomery County Democrats cheered him. State Sen. Jennie M. Forehand noted that Glendening helped Schmoke through a difficult reelection campaign three years ago. Forehand and other Glendening allies said the governor has also given Baltimore hundreds of millions of dollars in state aid for schools and other programs, occasionally to his own detriment politically.
"For him to now turn against the governor based solely on slots and casinos I think is obscene," Forehand said.
Glendening supporters were equally pugnacious in Baltimore. Labor union members carrying Glendening campaign signs surged around the makeshift stage at City Hall plaza, threatening to drown out Schmoke and Rehrmann. Rehrmann aides brought in four trucks to provide higher platforms for supporters.
The Glendening crowd left just before Schmoke began speaking, but the mayor and Rehrmann already had retreated to City Hall's high and distant portico, where they delivered their speeches in an "Evita"-like setting -- with rhetoric to match.
"Unless we take today's historic step," Schmoke said, "we are heading toward an election-year sinking of Titanic proportions, with Parris Glendening sitting in the captain's chair."
Schmoke said Glendening "did not keep the commitments he made four years ago in exchange for my endorsement." For example, he said, Glendening did not use "the full weight of his office" to see that Baltimore drivers no longer pay higher auto insurance rates.
Glendening aides said that the governor fought hard for such legislation but that the General Assembly weakened it. At the time, in fact, the governor's aides complained that Schmoke and city legislators did little to help lobby for the measures.
Schmoke emphasized yesterday the central role slot machines played in his thinking. He told reporters that if Glendening had agreed to a statewide referendum on legalizing slots at the tracks -- with the revenue funding education programs -- "we probably wouldn't be here today."
Del Ali, another Mason-Dixon pollster, said Glendening should easily win the September primary as long as Rehrmann and Ray Schoenke continue to seek the Democratic nomination. "It doesn't matter who endorses Rehrmann and who endorses Schoenke, because they split the anti-Glendening vote," Ali said.
Haller said endorsements, even from big-city mayors, seldom turn an election. However, he said, "it hurts the governor's overall standing and may reinforce some negative events. If you are a party supporter, you hate to see contested primaries. It takes away resources that should be husbanded for the general election."
Staff writers Ellen Nakashima and Robert E. Pierre contributed to this report.
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