Opponents of legalizing slot machines in Maryland, who have persevered in past years with polite, often church-led activism, yesterday launched a new campaign that calls for clogging the fax machines of lawmakers with anti-slots messages until they "fall to their knees and cry 'uncle.'"
The new, guerrilla-style tactics were unveiled yesterday at a rally in Annapolis that brought together a coalition of legislators and officials - as well as a Washington-based political advocacy firm that specializes in spam-and-fax protests.
The group, laptoplobbyist.com, bills itself as a grass-roots lobbying concern that focuses on conservative political causes. The campaign started yesterday with e-mails going to 1.6 million Marylanders, offering, for $10, to send anti-slot faxes in their name to legislators and the governor's office.
"We need to flood their fax machines this week with hundreds of thousands of faxes and disrupt their day to day operations until they fall to their knees and cry 'uncle,' " reads the e-mail message sent out by the anti-slots group. "[T]he time to act is now, because on February 11, they're going to try to ram their slots [bill] down our throats."
Political analysts say the maneuver could backfire by irritating elected officials who find themselves on the receiving end of a deluge of faxes.
"I think politically it's a horrible tactic," said Donald F. Norris, professor of public policy at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "It's going to annoy the senators and delegates whose offices get shut down as a result."
But W. Minor Carter, a lobbyist for the coalition of anti-slots groups, said organizing such letter-writing and fax campaigns is a common tactic others have used successfully in political battles.
"Good or bad, that's the way that politics is today," he said.
Those who receive the e-mails are directed to links that, for a $10 charge, will generate an anti-slots fax under their name that will then be sent to every member of the General Assembly, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Maryland Republican Party Chairman John Kane.
"We created this so the average person can electronically lobby their position on issues that are important to them," said Gary Gamber, director of business development for laptoplobbyist.com.
He said the firm hopes as many as 10,000 Marylanders will participate, which would result in more than 2 million faxes being sent.
After expenses, he said, any profits will be divided, with the anti-slots coalition getting a 60 percent share of the money to finance other activities.
Norris, the public policy professor, said that electronic lobbying efforts have long been used to target congressmen in Washington - and more recently have shifted to state legislatures.
But he said they tend to have limited effect because elected officials have learned to discount such organized campaigns.
About two dozen Democratic lawmakers participated in yesterday's news conference to launch the coalition's anti-slots effort. They were joined by Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., ministers and representatives of the League of Women Voters, Maryland NAACP chapters and others.
Del. Anthony G. Brown, a Prince George's Democrat, said the debate needs to shift from where slots might go and whether they should be privately or publicly owned to whether casino-style gambling should be allowed in the state at all.
"The question that has not been sufficiently debated is whether gambling is the right thing for Maryland," Brown said.
Ehrlich has proposed allowing 15,500 slot machines at four horse racing tracks and two undetermined locations along the Interstate 95 corridor to help pay for education improvements called for in the Thornton plan.
Last year, an Ehrlich plan to put 11,500 slot machines at racetracks passed in the Senate but stalled in the House, largely because of opposition from House Speaker Michael E. Busch.
Shareese N. DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Ehrlich, said "gimmicks," such as flooding State House fax machines with anti-slots letters, "won't fund education."
She added that Ehrlich is willing to work with legislators but will not renege on his pledge not to raise sales or income taxes - something Busch and some other elected officials have proposed as an alternative to legalizing slots.
Duncan warned that gambling will proliferate if Maryland opens the door to slots.
"If we bring slots to Maryland, then casinos are going to follow, and casinos in every county are going to follow. ... They'll be coming whether you want them or not," Duncan said.
In its campaign, the anti-slots group plans to target key legislators, especially in the Senate, where a slots bill was narrowly approved last year by a vote of 25 to 21.
"You can expect a much closer vote this year and, if we can, we're going to stop it in the Senate," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat.
But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who favors legalizing slot machines, said he is confident there are enough votes in the Senate to again pass a slots bill in that body.
Without slots, Miller said, the school funding plan known as Thornton "will go by the wayside" next year, and "those moralists will only have themselves to blame."
Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.