Glendening's Slots Stance Not Always Sure
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 23, 1998; Page B1
So frequently and fervently does Gov. Parris N. Glendening repeat his vow to keep slot machines out of Maryland that voters might assume it's a lifelong article of faith.
But the story of how he reached his position -- now a cornerstone of his reelection bid -- is murkier, marked by inconsistency and occasional confusion within and without his administration. According to interviews with key players and a review of records, the governor settled on his crucial stance after months of indecision, and at a moment in 1996 when he was suffering an unusual run of political missteps and bad publicity.
Some critics say Glendening (D) seized the no-slots issue to stop his downward slide, a charge the governor sharply disputes. There was no guarantee that opposing slots would prove popular, he said, but he did so because of evidence that big-time gambling can lead to higher crime and increased social ills.
Whatever the motive, his now-unflinching opposition to commercial slot machines has boosted his reelection campaign and profoundly affected Maryland politics over the last two years. It played a major role in this month's withdrawal by his main Democratic challenger, Eileen M. Rehrmann, who found little public support for her call to oust Glendening, in large part, because he opposed slots. And it caused several casino companies to give up on Maryland after investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobby state and local officials for legalization.
But the governor hasn't always sounded so certain about big-time gambling. "We have made absolutely no decisions" about slots and casinos, he said five months after taking office in January 1995.
As those politicians jockeyed for position, a dozen national casino companies hired Annapolis lobbyists and wooed state legislators, hoping for legalization in Maryland after successful expansions in the Midwest and deep South. Through it all, most state residents seemed indifferent.
In a Washington Post poll in June, 54 percent of state voters said the slots question was "not an important issue" in this year's gubernatorial campaign. To the degree that slot machines are a major campaign theme this year, it is driven mostly by special interests -- those for and against legalization -- rather than grass-roots fervor.
"I don't think people cared about it that much, one way or the other," said Nathan Landow, a Democratic fund-raiser from Bethesda who had helped Harvey's Casino Resort's now-abandoned bid in Cambridge.
Reviewing the Options
There was a time when Glendening defended one form of casino gambling: the charitable operations that were run in firehouses and other sites in Prince George's County, where he was county executive for 12 years. During his tenure, the casinos -- which involved card and table games but no slot machines -- grew into large, controversial endeavors, grossing more than $25 million a year and paying about $5 million annually to the county in fees and taxes.
Glendening sometimes posed for cameras as he accepted casino-funded checks for charitable causes. But he also called for tighter controls on the casinos, which were frequently plagued by corruption allegations. Meanwhile, as he prepared his 1994 run for governor, Glendening criticized keno, the state's newest lottery game.
As governor, Glendening kept the well-established keno game in place, and he approved the expansion of the lottery's daily Pick 3 and Pick 4 drawings to twice a day. But he grew increasingly wary as casino companies descended on Maryland, proposing outlets in Prince George's, Baltimore, Cambridge, Cecil County and Cumberland.
In June 1995, Glendening appointed a commission to study gambling proposals, chaired by former U.S. senator Joseph D. Tydings. Glendening said he had "serious reservations" about casinos but added: "We have made absolutely no decisions about casino gambling in Maryland."
In October 1995, Glendening said he probably would oppose legalized casinos regardless of what the commission recommended. A month later, the Tydings commission unanimously recommended that the state reject casinos.
In late 1995, Delaware began installing thousands of slot machines at its racetracks, a short drive from some Maryland communities. De Francis called for slots at his Maryland tracks, saying they would keep Free State gamblers (and their money) at home and provide new revenue for racing purses.
Glendening seemed to close the door on that option Feb. 8, 1996. In a guest column in the Bowie Blade-News, he wrote: "My official position as governor is to strongly oppose casino gambling, to oppose slot machines at the race tracks. . . . Slot machines at the race tracks should not be allowed in Maryland."
Records of Glendening's 1996 office appointments, obtained by The Washington Post in a Freedom of Information lawsuit, indicate that De Francis met with the governor for 30 minutes Feb. 22. A few days later, Glendening wrote a letter to legislators that softened the stance he had taken in the Bowie newspaper.
Slots were out of the question for at least a year, Glendening said, but he might consider them later under certain conditions. "If we then determine that slots in Delaware are in fact hurting Maryland's racing industry, we should review all alternatives and evaluate the options available to us," his letter said.
De Francis said his Feb. 22 meeting with Glendening was one of several he had with the governor that year. He declined to give details except to say he urged Glendening to support legislation that would allow slots at the tracks.
'Locking the Door' on Slots
July 7, 1996, marked the beginning of a six-week series of embarrassments and setbacks that preceded Glendening's decision to oppose slot machines unconditionally. It began when De Francis was fined and placed on probation for funneling illegal contributions to Glendening's 1994 campaign. The governor said he was unaware of the improper donations.
Five days later, Glendening disclosed that the chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission he appointed had been forced to resign because he had failed to disclose a loan from someone with horse racing interests.
On July 26, Glendening and Schmoke spent two hours in a private meeting that soon would prove controversial and trigger a deep rift between the onetime allies. The next day, Glendening left for a two-week family vacation in California.
Within days, sources close to Schmoke told reporters that Glendening had promised to support slot machines in order to raise new revenue for Baltimore's troubled schools. Glendening's chief of staff, Major F. Riddick Jr., said the governor's position on slots was unchanged. But some of his comments seemed ambiguous.
"This is the watershed year for slots," Riddick told reporters. "It must move this year," he said, referring to the upcoming 1997 General Assembly, "the year before the election, or it has to wait."
That night, Glendening issued a statement from California disputing Schmoke's version of their private meeting and saying: "If, and only if, there is evidence documenting that Maryland's thoroughbred horse racing industry or the Preakness are being negatively affected by slot machines at race tracks in nearby states, would we consider slots in Maryland."
Newspaper accounts, however, continued to give credence to Schmoke's version of the meeting. An Aug. 3 Washington Post editorial said Glendening "went secret last week to pledge his support for slot machines." The next day, the Baltimore Sun ran a front-page article saying: "Schmoke and Glendening appear to be lining up shoulder to shoulder in the effort to bring slot machine gambling to Maryland."
On Aug. 9, The Post and Sun carried news articles on an unrelated matter that rattled many Glendening supporters: The governor had attended a July 23 New York City campaign fund-raiser hosted by an entrepreneur bidding on a major state contract. Glendening aides said the governor had been unaware of the bid and would reject all money from the $1,000-a-person event and reimburse the host for the use of his corporate jet.
Glendening, trying to enjoy his West Coast vacation, received aides' phone calls and faxes with the steady flow of bad news. When he returned to work Aug. 12, there were still more bad headlines. Police had shut down an Oxon Hill charitable casino after finding cash shortages of $550,000. And a Washington Post editorial said, "Glendening's position on letting slot machines permeate Maryland is perplexing."
That morning, the governor convened a meeting of his top aides to settle the slots issue once and for all. "I've had it!" he exclaimed, slapping his palm on the long conference table, according to a participant. He was tired of political foes and self-serving lobbyists exaggerating his stand every time he held open the slightest possibility of legalizing slots.
Within hours, Glendening issued a statement saying: "No bill that authorizes slots will pass my desk. . . . I am locking the door and throwing away the key."
Defending His Decision
To some, the timing seemed more than coincidental. "You put those things together and the guy comes back from vacation," De Francis said in a recent interview. "Your advisers say, 'You're being viewed as a waffler and viewed as having questionable ethics.' I think his staff told him, 'You need to wrap yourself in the cloak of motherhood and apple pie,' " resulting in the the no-slots stand.
"That's just not true," Glendening said. "The truth is, they tried to pull a fast one while I was out of town."
Even though his administration grosses $1 billion annually from the state lottery, Glendening said he has felt personally uneasy about gambling since childhood. "My mom was addicted to commercial bingo," he said. "It would produce some arguments in the family."
He said he tolerated the charitable casinos in Prince George's but became convinced that large, for-profit casinos or slot machine operations would bring unacceptable levels of gambling addiction and crime.
"When the slots and casinos go in," he said, "you can't stop them at one point. They spread. The crime goes up, and official corruption goes up."
Some horse racing officials say Glendening broke his pledge to assess the impact of Delaware slot machines before entirely ruling them out in Maryland. "There was no study, no report, no nothing," De Francis said.
Glendening, however, said he could wait no longer when he concluded that pro-casino interests were trying to stampede the state into accepting slots during his 1996 California vacation. "I saw they tried to pull this fast one," he said, "and that was the breaking point."
Glendening and Gambling
Parris N. Glendening on slot machines and casino gambling:
"We have made absolutely no decisions about casino gambling in Maryland."
-- June 1995 announcement of a commission to study gambling
"My official position as governor is to strongly oppose casino gambling, to oppose slot machines at the race tracks.... Slot machines at the race tracks should not be allowed in Maryland."
-- Feb. 8, 1996, column in the Bowie Blade-News
"If, and only if, there is evidence documenting that Maryland's thoroughbred horse racing industry or the Preakness are being negatively affected by slot machines at race tracks in nearby states, would we consider slots in Maryland."
-- July 31, 1996, news release
"No bill that authorizes slots will pass my desk.... I am locking the door and throwing away the key."
-- News conference, Aug. 12, 1996
"I strongly oppose slots. I hope no one buys into this idea that somehow or other it's just going to be at the tracks, and even if it was, it is still wrong."
-- Interview with The Washington Post, July 10, 1998
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