Expanded gambling: pathway to jobs or wrong-way street?
Md. casino issue draws impassioned support, opposition
Tamara Davis Brown, an attorney in Clinton, is opposed to gambling expansion in Maryland. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston / October 19, 2012)
Ambrose "Bo" Vogt, a union construction worker from Pasadena, believes the effort to expand gambling in Maryland would create jobs in a field in which work has been scarce.
But Tamara Davis Brown, an attorney in Clinton, thinks legalizing table games and allowing a casino in Prince George's would tarnish the image and economic future of the county she has called home since 1988.
Both are firmly committed — Vogt to supporting Question 7 and Brown to opposing it. The referendum campaign has been dominated by the lavish spending of rival casino giants on slick advertising spots, but for some voters, the issue is deeply felt and intensely personal.
"I don't want Prince George's County to be the entertainment capital," Brown said. "I think we need a better brand than 'entertainment capital.'"
Vogt doesn't see a downside to allowing more gambling in Maryland.
"I don't think it's any risk to us — to the state or the people that live here," he said. "It's going to make money. There's going to be revenue generated."
Approval of Question 7 would clear the way for a new casino in Prince George's County while legalizing table games there and at the five Maryland sites now licensed for slot machines. Most observers believe the leading candidate for a Prince George's casino is National Harbor, a swank development on the Potomac River where Brown likes to shop and attend shows such as Cirque du Soleil.
Brown wants to block a new casino as much as Vogt wants to build it.
The two come to the issue from different places in life. She's 46, black and upper middle class. He's 61, white and carries a union card as a member of Local 24, Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers.
In Brown's corner is Penn National Gaming, which sees a National Harbor casino as a threat to profits from its casinos in Perryville and West Virginia. In Vogt's is MGM Entertainment Resorts, which wants a piece of Maryland gambling revenue. Together, the companies and related interests have thrown $60 million into the contest.
According to legislative analysts, the expanded gambling plan adopted by the General Assembly, once fully implemented, would raise nearly $200 million more each year than the current slots-only program and direct the money toward education. Critics point out that lawmakers would be free to cut other education spending, wiping out any gains.
Question 7 has to win both statewide and in Prince George's County for the sixth casino to open. If it wins statewide but loses in the county, table games would be permitted at the five currently licensed slots sites.
If the measure loses statewide, table games won't be allowed anywhere.
'We would love to stay here'
Brown was born in Houston, works for a McLean, Va.-based law firm and travels regularly into Washington for work. Her husband is an information specialist who works in Montgomery County. They have two children.
While Brown, a congregant of the nondenominational Heart Church Ministries, does not stress religion as the reason for her opposition, it is a factor.
"Definitely, my faith would be the basic foundation," she said.
Built on that foundation is her feeling about the county where she lives. Brown believes Prince George's should be a place where people such as herself and her husband can build professional careers.
"We would love to stay here and work in our own county," Brown said, rather than commute to jobs elsewhere.
Putting a casino at National Harbor won't help, she said. She thinks most of the jobs a casino would create would be low-paying — not the kinds of high-technology, environmental science and professional positions she believes the county needs.
"Other jobs don't fit the pedigree and the caliber of the residents that we have," she said. "I think there's a well-educated workforce who would like to see the brand continue in the track of technology, on the track of environmental sciences."
Some of Brown's arguments are similar to those made by Penn National. Like the company's ads, she contends that the new state revenue that proponents say would go to education would not necessarily stay there.
"There's no guarantee that our legislature won't decide in a session or special session that we have an emergency and we're going to need that money" for something else, she said.
One argument that gets nowhere with her is the warning that Marylanders are taking their dollars out of state to gamble. The farther people have to go, she says, the less danger of gambling addiction.
"Let 'em take a nice day trip and go visit West Virginia or Delaware. I think that's fine," she said.
Brown hasn't been taking part in rallies against the casino plan but has been contributing to the grass-roots opposition in her own way. She has composed emails focusing on specific reasons to vote against the gambling expansion and is sending them to a list of more than 1,000 county residents, built up over the course of two losing but respectable finishes in runs for state delegate and County Council.
"Believe me, email works," she said. "I think the question's going to fail."
'It's better to have the money'
Vogt, an Anne Arundel County native who is married to a teacher at a Christian school and has three grown children, hasn't been as active but is a firm yes vote. He sees National Harbor as a project that would generate 1,200 construction jobs for more than a year, including work for him and fellow pipe coverers. It's a good-paying job, $33 an hour plus benefits, he said.
That's nothing to scoff at in the current labor market, said Vogt, who has been out of work in recent weeks after 40 years in his trade.
"It's been slow the last year," he said. "There's work out of town if you want to go to Arizona or Tennessee or New Orleans. I'm at the point now where I may be going out there."
Vogt said he believes the benefits of a new casino would outlast the construction phase.
"There'll be permanent jobs after they're built. Those casinos don't operate themselves," he said. And he sees nothing low-class about the jobs that would follow the construction.
"I'd like NASA to put up a place right there. It's just not in the cards," he said. "We've got to take what we can get jobs-wise."
As for the lack of guarantees that total spending on education would go up, Vogt's willing to take the risk. The way he sees it, the more money that is going into state coffers, the more money that would be available for schools.
"It's better to have the money and have a chance rather than not having the money at all and having it go to Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia," he said. With expanded gambling in Maryland, "they'll keep the money in the state. The workers will be local workers."
If a casino were built at National Harbor, Vogt sees himself more as part of the workforce than the customer base. He said he's not much of a gambler, except for the occasional game of poker with buddies.
Vogt has seen opinion polls showing his side behind on Question 7, but thinks the tide might be turning.
"I think it's going to be one of those squeakers," he said. "No matter which way it goes, a lot of people are going to be disappointed."
Tomorrow: Same-sex marriage
Do you favor the expansion of commercial gaming in the State of Maryland for the primary purpose of raising revenue for education to authorize video lottery operation licensees to operate "table games" as defined by law; to increase from 15,000 to 16,500 the maximum number of video lottery terminals that may be operated in the State; and to increase from 5 to 6 the maximum number of video lottery operation licenses that may be awarded in the State and allow a video lottery facility to operate in Prince George's County?
Source: State Board of Elections