Two companies trying to win approval of a Prince George's County casino have turned over almost $1 million to former County Executive Wayne K. Curry to run a "grass-roots" operation to deliver votes for Question 7 on Election Day.
The Peterson Cos., developer of National Harbor, and Gaylord Entertainment, which owns a hotel and convention center there, have given $700,000 and $250,000, respectively, since mid-October to a committee controlled by Curry that is working for passage of the gambling-expansion measure.
The former county executive said he is motivated by what he sees as a good deal for the state and Prince George's. He said the money is being used to reach voters in a more personal way than the media campaigns that have dominated the Question 7 fight.
"It's going to obviously be used to extend and translate some of the messages that up to now have been largely air wars," Curry said.
Some critics view the development warily.
"Corporations have gotten very smart about 'Astroturf campaigns' where they go in and create the illusion of grass-roots support," said James Browning, Mid-Atlantic director for the watchdog group Common Cause.
Curry, 61, said his emphasis on reaching out to voters flows from the style of campaigning that helped make him Maryland's first African-American county executive when he was elected to the first of two terms in 1994. "I'm a big believer in retail-style politicking," he said.
Since leaving office, Curry, a Democrat, has worked as an attorney and developer.
He said he expects much of the Question 7 money to be used to hire people to work the polls on Election Day, knock on doors to drum up votes, provide rides and other activities. Paying workers on Election Day to do such chores used to be illegal under Maryland's ban on "walking-around money," but that law was struck down by the Court of Appeals in 2003 as a violation of free speech.
Other interests with a stake in the outcome of the vote on Question 7 also have invested in grass-roots campaigns, a loosely defined term that can include such activities as phone banks, canvassing and offering rides to the polls. But no other operation appears to be as well-bankrolled as Curry's.
Curry said he has personally "worked the lines" at early-voting locations this year — chatting with voters when queues extended beyond the no-electioneering line outside the polls. He said he will not pay himself a salary out of the coffers of the committee, which will have to disclose its remaining spending after Election Day.
Other proponents of Question 7, which would allow a new casino to be built in Prince George's and permit table games at all state gambling sites, have their own grass-roots efforts. A ballot committee mostly financed by MGM Resorts International, the prospective operator of a National Harbor casino, has paid more than $500,000 to a company called Field Strategies to conduct grass-roots operations.
Opponents of the expansion, bankrolled by rival casino operator Penn National Gaming, disclosed that they've spent $150,000 to hire a Prince George's group called Family Faith Future for what is described as grass-roots efforts. Penn National also has spent six-figure sums on contractors for work that could be considered grass-roots activity but was described in other terms in disclosure reports.
Todd Eberly, a professor of political science at St. Mary's College of Maryland, said the fact that corporate interests are bankrolling local activists doesn't mean it isn't a grass-roots campaign.
"That doesn't happen if you don't have actual people," he said. "It's still grass-roots, but you had somebody putting fertilizer on the grass."
In choosing Curry to deliver their message, National Harbor interests have found a messenger who still enjoys strong name recognition in Maryland's second-largest county — a jurisdiction supporters of Question 7 must carry for a casino license to be approved.
Eberly said Curry's visibility in the pro-casino cause could lay the groundwork for a political comeback or a prominent future role in the casino industry.
But Curry says he became involved because he believes a National Harbor casino is the opportunity of a lifetime for Prince George's. He said he has no financial interest in the development and no political ambitions.
"I'm not going to run for political office again," he said. "I'm done."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun