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Slots foes, other advocates, grow weary of politics

Rob Annicelli's drive to stop a huge slots emporium planned near his home led him to extremes.

He used vacation days to gather signatures for a referendum blocking the project, and took more time off to sit in a courtroom, monitoring a court effort to challenge the petition. He all but gave up his favorite sport of kayaking and his usual pastime watching the History Channel, and time with his family dwindled.

"I don't like being bullied by anybody, whether they're a developer or a public official, and I felt someone needed to stand up for our community," said Annicelli, a 33-year-old federal employee who lives in Hanover. "But in the middle of the campaign petition, it was on the cusp of overtaking me. My wife was not very happy with the amount of time I was spending on it."

Annicelli is now scaling back his involvement with Stop Slots at the Mall, the effort fighting approval of a 4,750-machine parlor at Arundel Mills mall, becoming the latest citizen activist in Maryland and elsewhere to find more than they bargained for after launching into a cause.

Some grass-roots leaders start out bristling with energy and idealism, but many soon realize that politics can be a slog. Night meetings and public hearings take their toll. And when citizens do battle against big-money interests, from developers to racetrack owners, they often find themselves outmatched and overworked. Recent battles in Maryland over slots, liquor laws and development have left their share of frustrated residents.

Others become so empowered that they run for office themselves, occasionally forging long careers, like Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

Donald F. Norris, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said citizen activists tend to have the odds stacked against them.

"Sometimes the little guy can be a giant killer, but for the most part, our political system is tilted toward the giant," said Norris. "The politicians, the big corporations, the unions — the giant has access to money. The individual doesn't."

Annicelli doesn't fit that description entirely. The petition drive was successful in large part because it received a huge financial boost from the owners of the Laurel Park racetrack, who are hoping slots go there instead of the mall. The track owners paid for a professional company to gather names, an effort that the developers, The Cordish Cos., contended in court documents resulted in fraud.

Still, the fatigue he experienced is typical.

Aaron Meisner, a Mount Washington stockbroker, grew concerned in 2002 about how slots at the Pimlico racetrack could affect his neighborhood. As lawmakers considered whether to expand gambling, he signed on as chair of Stop Slots Maryland, furiously lobbying over the next several years. His defeat was sealed with the passage of a statewide ballot question legalizing slots in 2008.

Meisner, who once considered his own run for public office, has walked away jaded from his days of activism. A self-described avid Democrat, who used to knock on doors and wave signs for his favorite candidates for local office, Meisner says it's hard to muster the enthusiasm to make it to the ballot box on election day.

"Slots sort of destroyed any optimism I had about political leadership," said Meisner. "I had this naive, fundamental belief that there was a rational process, and what I came away with was — there is money, and there is nothing else."

All the time traversing the state took its toll on Meisner, who said his personal relationships and his finances took a hit during his years of activism.

The younger of Meisner's two sons was born immediately after the end of the 2003 General Assembly session.

"I remember kind of thinking that, 'Boy, I hope this kid is carried to term, because if he's even a few weeks early, I'm going to be managing a newborn baby and the biggest issue in state politics,'" said Meisner, 44. "It was ridiculous. People who take these things on have to manage their jobs and private lives. Corporate interests have millions of dollars."

Adam Borden was living in Baltimore and working as a venture capitalist when he received an e-mail one day from a newsletter he subscribed to. The man who ran Marylanders for Better Beer & Wine Laws, which was formed in 2005 with the goal of reforming the state's beverage laws, was leaving the state. The departing chief wanted to know if anyone was interested in replacing him.

Because his firm specializes in food and beverage investments, Borden thought it would serve his clients well if he had better knowledge of local laws, though he acknowledged, "I wasn't entirely sure what I was getting involved in."

As executive director, Borden lobbied the General Assembly unsuccessfully during the most recent 90-day legislative session to allow Maryland residents to have wine shipped directly to their homes. He said it was tough to compete with the career lobbyists, who knew many of the lawmakers well.

He resigned from his post in dramatic fashion, firing off an e-mail detailing his frustrations, after a marathon committee meeting, though he still serves on the board of the organization.

In retrospect, Borden wouldn't take it all back; he'd just tweak his strategy.

"I learned a lot," said Borden, 36. "I made a lot friends, which was probably the greatest takeaway. … I perhaps might have approached it with a little less intensity and struck more of a balance with my work and my personal life. I don't know that I necessarily regret the outcome, but the process was a bit choppy."

To deal with the stress and the time spent away from loved ones, citizens must put real passion behind their causes, activists say.

Annicelli said his father's propensity for gambling when he was growing up in New Haven, Conn., was part of the driving force behind his decision to get involved.

"It affected everything," said Annicelli. "It caused family fights."

But his involvement in the anti-slots movement caused a new set of problems at home, with his wife upset at the amount of time he was spending on the project.

When Annicelli's sister, a nurse who lives near their hometown, suffered a heart attack, he dropped everything to be by her side.

"I took time out to visit her and watch her kids," said Annicelli, whose sister has since recovered. "Some things are more important."

Annicelli recently decided to back away from the volunteer work, and David Jones, who lives at another development near the mall, is filling the void — as leader of another group with a similar mission.

Jones, chairman of the newly minted "No Slots at the Mall," the campaign seeking to overturn the zoning for the slots project on the fall ballot, said he consulted his family before taking on the high-profile role.

An information technology professional and the married father of a 4-month-old daughter, 36-year-old Jones has already debated the chairman of the company proposing to build the Arundel slots facility, developer David Cordish, on a radio news program.

"This is too important to worry about my anonymity," said Jones. "After Election Day, I'll go back to being a 'Regular Joe.' But for the next nine weeks, I don't mind being the bull's-eye."

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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