ELLEN SAUERBREY took a giant step toward the Governor's Mansion in Annapolis last week -- and she didn't have to lift a finger.
The incumbent governor, Parris Glendening, gift-wrapped a present for her that could vastly improve her chances: a tentative plan to legalize slot machines in Maryland.
To say that gambling proposals are unpopular with voters is an understatement. Throughout the country, voters have consistently rejected gambling initiatives by lopsided margins.
Handing her the high ground
If Mr. Glendening is serious about tying his reelection to the legalization of slot machines, he's defying the odds.
Handing the moral high ground to your arch-rival is political suicide. Yet that is what Mr. Glendening seems to be doing. The secret backroom deal hatched by the governor and Mayor Kurt Schmoke to push for slot machines at race tracks and elsewhere in Maryland is morally bankrupt. There are no redeeming virtues.
There is also the matter of political hypocrisy -- what the governor's opponents will call outright lies to the voters.
Mr. Glendening campaigned as a strident foe of expanded gambling in Maryland. Since his election, he has vigorously opposed casino gambling. And he denounced in strong language the slots-at-the-tracks plan pushed by racing leaders in this year's General Assembly session.
Now, because it is suddenly expedient, the governor talks of legalizing slots.
Of course, once the mayor made their agreement public, the governor started backtracking. Now he's saying he's only for slots if studies show Maryland race tracks are being hurt by Delaware race-track slots.
You can bet your last dollar that any Glendening administration study or race-track financed study will come to the conclusion the governor desires.
An issue the GOP loves
This issue is tailor-made for Republicans, especially the candidate who narrowly lost to Mr. Glendening in 1994, Mrs. Sauerbrey.
She is morally and philosophically opposed to legalized gambling. She's unyielding on that point. Her firm stance isn't likely to change with the wind, as happens with some politicians.
Republicans in the General Assembly, meanwhile, are overwhelmed with glee. It is the perfect campaign issue for them. They can rail against the lack of moral backbone among Democrats, the Democrats' unholy alliance with gambling interests and the dangers of keeping these conniving Democrats in office.
If a repulsed public turns against a Democratic governor, Democrats in the legislature will be in jeopardy, too.
Then there's the referendum problem. Unless the governor is DTC extremely clever, a bill permitting legalized slot machines could be petitioned to the ballot. Then the gambling question takes on added prominence, with Mr. Glendening on the unpopular side of the issue.
Trying to fool voters
Trying to tie slots revenue to increased education aid is a subterfuge that few voters will buy. It may be an easy way to get the governor off the fiscal precipice and a way to keep a key ally, Mayor Schmoke, happy. And it may be a great device for wringing large campaign contributions from dozens of gambling concerns.
But few will be fooled into thinking this is a good idea.
Slots revenue is the lazy politician's answer to knotty problems.
The governor won't have to cut programs and reduce the state payroll any further.
The mayor won't have to downsize city government or worry about fat in the Baltimore bureaucracy.
Slots provide oodles of money to pump into education without worrying about how it is spent. It gives the mayor and governor money to burn on politically important initiatives for special interest groups willing to support them at election time.
But slots won't solve the city's education woes. Slots won't solve the governor's long-term budget woes. Slots won't even offer a long-term solution to racing's chronic weaknesses.
Slot machines will, though, solve Ellen Sauerbrey's biggest problem: Finding a popular position on a hot-button issue that will click with voters and catapult her into the governor's chair.
Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor of The Sun.
Pub Date: 8/04/96