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The election is still six weeks away, and I have a terrible track record at predictions but that never seems to stop me, so here goes: I bet a dozen candy apples the slots referendum goes down.

Of course, that would be a major upset, if you go by what the polls have been telling us since winter. But, from where I sit, the grass-roots anti-slots crowd appears passionate, relentless and vocal while the other side doesn't seem to have developed an identity, though it's generally associated with gambling lobbyists  and the thoroughbred horse industry. (A lot of people tell me they've grown tired of the horsemen's whine about how tough it is to make a living here.)

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We're told pro-slots forces are waiting to strike in October and that they have millions to spend on advertising. Then again, maybe they think the national economic mess and Maryland's budget shortfalls will shock taxpayers into marching out on election day and voting in favor of the constitutional ammendment.

But I can't see that happening.

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Recent polls show that Marylanders still support the referendum to legalize slots, but the level of support has dropped considerably since January. (Not that it's a precise measure of attitudes in any way, but I haven't had a single caller to my radio show express support for slots, other than in that cynical, I'm-so-freakin'-sick-of-the-whole-thing way.)

And Martin O'Malley? He's gone from calling slots "morally bankrupt" to being ambivalent about them to embracing all 15,000 machines. We're told he's going to push hard for the ammendment's passage, but who's going to listen to him? His popularity went into the tank after last year's tax increases, he picked the wrong horse (H.R. Clinton) in the presidential primary  . . . and, well, he isn't exactly having a banner year. Plus, this was a Bobby Ehrlich thing -- slots -- and do you think The O'Governor is just a little squeamish about being identified with an issue so identified with his Republican rival?

Look, the gambling forces (read that, Magna Corp. of Canada) might come up with major moolah to buy a lot of TV time in October; they might put on a show yet.

But I'd just like to remind everyone of something that occured in the 1988 election. Pardon me if it sounds like ancient history. But that was the year the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun forces poured a ton of money into Maryland in an effort to kill a referendum to prohibit what used to be called Saturday Night Specials, an array of cheap handguns used in a lot of  shootings and homicides here. Whether the law had any merit or effectiveness -- that's beside the point. The point is, Marylanders so resented big money coming into the state and making obnoxious buys of advertising -- outsiders telling us what to do, basically -- that the law passed overwhelmingly.

The same thing could happen if the pro-slots boys get too heavy-handed between now and Election Day. They've got a nice little lead in the polls now. They could lose it if they don't do enough -- or if they do too much.

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