There are few issues that divide the Democratic primary candidates for Maryland governor. But the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to allow legalized sports betting is prompting sharp — and varying — reactions from hopefuls about the possibility of the industry finding a home in the Old Line State.
“All gambling is wrong and reprehensible,” candidate Valerie Ervin said in response to a question from a panel of journalists at the WMAR-2 TV studio in Baltimore during a taped debate on Wednesday. “It’s an addiction worse than heroin.”
Ervin, a former Montgomery County Council member who is one of seven major candidates in the June 26 primary, said she was speaking from personal experience about the ravages of addiction on families and society at large. As governor, she said, she would not support efforts to legalize sports betting or put the question on the ballot.
The two lesser-known candidates in the race — substance-abuse counselor James Jones and teacher and community activist Ralph Jaffe, neither of whom have significant funding or campaign operations — joined Ervin in flatly rejecting the idea.
But Ervin’s position diverges significantly from the other major candidates in the race, most of whom say they favor legalization under certain circumstances.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who is running for reelection, said he has no plans to call a special session of the General Assembly to vote on a bill introduced this past year that would put the issue to the voters through a referendum. That means the soonest Marylanders could vote on sports betting would be in the next election, in 2020.
State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery) said waiting until then would be a mistake. During the debate, the lawmaker called on the governor to reverse course now and give voters a chance to voice their preference in November.
Former NAACP chief Ben Jealous also said voters should have a chance to decide the issue and added that any sports-betting revenue should be directed specifically toward education and administered in fairness to college athletes.
Waiting two years will put Maryland at a competitive and economic disadvantage, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III agreed.
Casinos have generated hundreds of millions of dollars for Maryland since they became legal in 2008. In Prince George’s County alone, revenue from the casino at MGM National Harbor gave Baker his first budget surplus in years.
“We already have gambling,” Baker said, explaining that he would support legalization of sports betting as long as it is regulated. “Turning away any revenue,” he added, is not smart for the state.
Baltimore attorney James Shea said he would like to see how other states fare in regulating and taxing the sports-betting business and take some time to figure out how to use the resulting revenue. “Let’s get it right,” he said.
Alec Ross, a tech entrepreneur who worked for the Obama administration, said he would also support sports betting if it is the will of voters and the “process is done with integrity.”
Krishanti Vignarajah, a former policy aide to Michelle Obama, said sports betting would not be a priority for her administration if she is elected. She pivoted to talking about building up small businesses as a source of state revenue and progress.
Most Maryland Democratic voters are undecided about whom to nominate for governor, a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll found this week, but Jealous and Baker are leading among likely voters.
Marylanders can watch the broadcast of Wednesday’s debate, “Your Voice, Your Vote the Gubernatorial Democratic Debate,” on June 13 at 8 p.m. on WMAR-2.