Gambling Interests See Improved Odds
By Charles Babington
Advocates of bringing slot machines to Maryland drew two bits of encouragement last week from a public opinion poll: The governor, their most steadfast opponent, remains politically at risk, and public support is growing for slot-machine gambling at horse racing tracks.
As a consequence, the gambling supporters said, Maryland's 1998 gubernatorial election may determine whether slot machines will reappear in the state anytime soon. Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) has vowed "no slots, no casinos, no exceptions" for as long as he's in office. But the likeliest challengers to his reelection have left the door ajar, taking a wait-and-see stance on slots while they monitor public sentiment and seek ways to distinguish themselves from the incumbent.
Findings from the independent poll were released as Maryland political leaders are under pressure from the gambling industry, which wants the state to follow Delaware and West Virginia in permitting slot machines at racetracks.
"I think it's going to be a big campaign issue," said Gerard E. Evans, a lobbyist in Annapolis for Harvey's Casino Resorts. "The tide is really turning on the issue."
Several other analysts, however, warn that out-front support for slot machines could prove perilous for political candidates in a state where people remember gambling scandals and liberal or progressive voters play a big role in Democratic primaries.
"I think it's a volatile thing to do politically," said Thomas B. Stone Jr., a lobbyist for the Restaurant Association of Maryland, which opposes slot machines and casinos. Polls show consistently that most Marylanders oppose full-fledged casinos, Stone said, so as voters realize that slot machines provide the bulk of casino revenue, they may turn against slots.
"There's no difference between slots and casinos," he said. "It's the camel's nose under the tent."
Glendening sees his anti-slots stance as a political winner, aides say, and he will try to force his 1998 rivals to stand with him or against him on the issue.
"I think it will be difficult for anybody running for governor of Maryland to avoid taking a position on the expansion of gambling," said Michael Barnes, a former member of Congress who is heading Glendening's 1998 campaign committee. "The governor's position is very clear and emphatic."
In its polling, Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research Inc. found that 46 percent of Marylanders support slot machines at racetracks and that 43 percent oppose slots. The numbers were reversed 11 months ago, when 47 percent opposed and 41 percent favored slots at the tracks.
The poll of 805 likely voters statewide, surveyed July 17-19, also found that Glendening remains comparatively unpopular for a first-term Democratic governor in a solidly Democratic state. The poll, commissioned by the Journal newspapers and other news organizations, found Glendening in statistical ties in a hypothetical Democratic primary race against Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (3rd District) and in a general election rematch with Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey, whom Glendening defeated for governor in 1994.
Sauerbrey is considered the front-runner for the 1998 GOP nomination. Cardin is mulling whether to leave a safe congressional seat from the Baltimore area to challenge Glendening for the Democratic nomination.
Sauerbrey said she views "slots at the tracks as very undesirable," but she won't rule them out because of the racing industry's economic needs. Cardin's staff said he has not taken an official position on slots at the tracks, and several requests for an interview on the topic went unanswered Thursday and Friday.
Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, a Democrat who plans to challenge Glendening next year, said she is open-minded on allowing slots at the tracks. And House of Delegates Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany), who also is weighing a campaign for governor, has said expansion of gambling may be necessary and inevitable.
Some political activists say pro-gambling candidates could find themselves in trouble, especially among good-government activists in Montgomery County or Baltimore residents who fear that slot machines at the Pimlico racetrack might further damage their ailing city.
"If Glendening has a serious primary opponent like Cardin, it's not smart politics on Cardin's part in a Democratic primary to run with the slot-machine proposal," said Keith Haller, a consultant and pollster based in Bethesda. Most Democratic primaries, he said, "are still determined largely by more progressive voters. . . . And I think the liberal community is pretty much dead set against" slot machines.
Still, Haller said, a candidate who remains neutral on slots might attract campaign money quietly from gambling companies. "The curious question is whether the money interests supporting slots in Maryland decide to enter the race heavily against Glendening," he said. If so, "it has to be a stealth effort," Haller said, because open reliance on out-of-state casino companies could sink a candidacy.
At the same time, however, pro-gambling activists see the Mason-Dixon poll as evidence that Glendening's anti-slots rhetoric has not boosted his image among voters.
"What I take encouragement from is that the strong stand against slots has not resulted in an increase in popularity," said Joe De Francis, owner of the Pimlico and Laurel racetracks and a chief proponent of bringing in slot machines.
"As more and more Maryland dollars flow out of state to Delaware, and soon to be West Virginia, more and more Marylanders will support slots" at the race courses, he said.
Sauerbrey, who generally has denounced expansions of gambling, may be taking the biggest risk by keeping her options open, analysts said. Religious conservatives, important to her candidacy, rarely champion casinos and slot machines.
"I don't think Sauerbrey has any chance to embrace slots," said Bernie Horn, director of the anti-gambling group NoCasiNo. "I know she wobbled recently. But she was very strong before, and she can't afford to alienate her strongest supporters."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company