A prominent Baltimore pastor challenged House Speaker Michael E. Busch's opposition to slot machines yesterday, saying gambling could be an industry of last resort that brings jobs and improved housing to failing city neighborhoods.
"I'm almost at the point, no matter how we get there, we need jobs," said the Rev. Harold A. Carter Sr. of New Shiloh Baptist Church, a West Baltimore institution.
Delivering his remarks at a legislative briefing for black clergy at New Psalmist Baptist Church, Carter - who studied at the same seminary as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and considers the civil rights leader a mentor - said his desire for economic growth in Baltimore has nearly superseded his opposition to slots.
Busch has blocked a plan to add slot machines at racetracks championed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller for two years. Addressing several dozen clergy members, Busch repeated his view that adding slot machines at would be a mistake.
"I thought that was the worst decision anyone could make, putting that burden in the middle of a poor community," Busch said. "If we are getting the billboards out for tobacco and alcohol, and creating needle exchange programs, we don't need to put 4,500 slot machines in the middle of a community trying to right itself."
In response, Carter said that casino companies could pump millions into neighborhood development. He noted that Las Vegas is one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation and that he saw African-Americans employed in good casino jobs during a recent visit to Mississippi. By contrast, he said, employment prospects for working-class African-Americans in Baltimore are bleak.
Carter said he wants state leaders to offer a positive vision for urban economic growth, rather than opposition to unsavory choices.
"We're talking about what not to do," Carter said. "As a pastor in this city, I don't see anything changing on the horizon. ... I'm just asking what are we going to do to put an alternative on the table. Please don't say I'm promoting casinos. I'm not."
For the past two years, black clergy and their parishioners have been an important component of an organized effort to block slot machines in Maryland. The slots issue is likely to be debated again in during the 90-day session that will begin Wednesday.
No shift seen
Busch and other lawmakers said they don't think Carter's comments represent a major shift in the views of clergy.
"Absolutely not," said Del. Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat and speaker pro tem, who helped organize the breakfast.
Jones noted that no members of the city legislative delegation favored slots at Pimlico during negotiations last summer over placing a gambling referendum on the November ballot.
The Rev. Willie David McClung II, pastor of Emmaus Missionary Baptist Church in Randallstown, said Carter was "taking a broad look and not being closed to different thoughts about economic development."
"I took his remarks not necessarily to be for gambling, but we need a solution for jobs for viable communities," McClung said.
Busch did not back down from his opposition to slots at Pimlico after Carter spoke. Funding public schools and higher education, he said, is the "greatest economic development tool" for Baltimore and other areas.
City residents need to take advantage of job opportunities at the Johns Hopkins and University of Maryland medical facilities in Baltimore, among the city's largest employers, he said.
Most slots and casino jobs are hourly-wage positions with no benefits, Busch said. "There is not a lot of opportunity for upward mobility with those jobs," he said.
Busch said he was not sure whether a slots bill would be introduced during the Assembly session. If slots are legalized, the speaker favors a system of state-owned facilities along interstate highways away from urban areas, positioned to capture travelers who may be heading to gamble in West Virginia and Delaware. Pennsylvania also legalized slots this year, but the machines are not in place.
Ehrlich said this week that he had not decided whether to resubmit a plan he prefers, but Miller continues to talk about Maryland's need for money from slots.