Under sharp criticism for considering slot machines at Maryland racetracks and for questionable fund-raising, Gov. Parris N. Glendening returned from vacation this week looking for a way to regain his political balance.
Slot machines and casinos, he declared at a Monday news conference, would not come to this state as long as he was governor. Period.
His unexpected declaration was a bold move with two apparent goals: to demonstrate he is not captive to the powerful racing and casino interests that have been pushing for more gambling and to reassure Maryland voters who, polls suggest, don't like the idea.
But in deflecting the criticism of political opponents and editorial writers, Glendening abandoned apparent commitments to Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and the state's horse racing industry.
Whether the governor's "not on my watch" strategy will serve him well in the long run is open to question.
It is clear, however, that the governor needed a jolt of good news.
He had faced a stream of bad publicity since July 19, when Joseph A. De Francis, the majority owner of Pimlico and Laurel racecourses, was found guilty of using elderly relatives to funnel $12,000 in illegal contributions to the Glendening campaign during the 1994 gubernatorial race.
The disclosures gave new life to Republican charges that with his aggressive fund-raising for his 1998 re-election bid, Glendening had gotten too cozy with special interests.
The news also fueled speculation that the governor would be pressured to reward the racing industry by supporting slot machines at the tracks.
A week after De Francis' plea, Glendening and Schmoke sat down in the State House and emerged to announce they had reached a "conceptual agreement" on the financing and management of the Baltimore school system.
After their joint news conference, the two men exchanged a handshake and both left for vacations.
The Schmoke bombshell
But within a few days, Schmoke was dropping a bombshell. He said that the governor had privately committed to supporting slot machines, with a chunk of the money generated to be earmarked for the cash-strapped Baltimore schools.
An aide to the governor confirmed that Glendening had agreed to back slots, as long as there was evidence that Maryland's racetracks needed them to compete with Delaware tracks where slots had been installed.
Outcry in newspapers
The report provoked an outcry as newspaper columnists and editorial writers across the state criticized Glendening's flirtation with gambling. The message was clear: Any move to approve slots was essentially an endorsement of full-blown casinos down the road.
"He's practically Johnny Casino," one Sun columnist wrote of the governor. "Somebody get this guy a pinky ring."
Sprinkled among the complaints was applause from at least one quarter -- out-of-state casino companies, which have tried to capitalize on sympathy for the racing industry to gain a presence in Maryland.
With the hubbub over slots swirling and the governor still on the West Coast, one company that has eyed Maryland for the past year held a splashy event in Elkton to announce plans for a $100 million quasi-casino, with off-track horse betting and hundreds of slot machines.
On top of all the gambling stories came news of a possible ethical lapse by the governor.
Newspapers reported that a New Jersey health care firm had organized a $1,000-a-head fund-raiser for Glendening in July -- even flying him to New York City on a corporate jet -- at the same time the firm had a bid pending on a state contract worth about $25 million a year.
The governor's office said Glendening had learned of the bid only on the flight to New York and had then refused to accept contributions from the company. But on the heels of the De Francis charges, critics suggested that all of Glendening's fund-raising was tainted.
Came back angry
When he came back to work Monday, Glendening was, by his own account, angry.
At his news conference, he seemed flustered. He accused unnamed forces in the "gambling lobby" of trying to railroad him into supporting slot machines, noting that they had kept up a steady "drumbeat" about slots-for-education for the last month.
"The aggressiveness of the casino interests during my two-week absence has made it clear to me that they will stop at nothing to bring casinos into our state," the governor said.
He never mentioned that the chief drumbeater had been his No. 1 political ally -- Kurt Schmoke.
With his pledge to veto gambling legislation, Glendening has won praise from casino opponents, including the state restaurant association. Even Republicans have offered some grudging compliments.
But he has risked a breach with Schmoke, who helped deliver the governor's winning margin in 1994 and will presumably be asked to do so again in 1998.
Schmoke is clearly unhappy.
"I recognize how difficult the slots issue is," Schmoke said after Glendening's announcement. "He told me he had polled and slots were disfavored by the majority of Marylanders, so it was a tough political call. But at least we could have put it out on the table, analyzed it, and seen if it made sense."
Racing interests, meanwhile, were left puzzled and angry as Glendening, without warning, pulled the plug on slots -- which the industry says it desperately needs to compete with Delaware tracks, where the devices have been in use since December.
Pimlico may be closed
The industry -- which enjoys strong support in the General Assembly -- immediately fired back, suggesting that Pimlico Race Course may now be forced to close.
Even some legislators said that Glendening may have acted precipitously.
"I can understand his concerns, but they're shortsighted at best in the sense that a leader has to be continually aware of what's happening on our state's borders," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a supporter of both racing and slots at the tracks.
"Maryland is not Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm on the gambling issue," said Miller, ticking off the state's current gambling offerings -- slots in nonprofit clubs on the Eastern Shore, casino nights in Prince George's County and tip jars in Western Maryland.
"The key is not to say we're not going to do anything else," Miller said. "The key is to manage it and to make certain that the state's revenues are maximized."
Perhaps most vexing to Glendening has been the suggestion even by some Democrats that a governor who has changed his position once on such an important issue could well do it again.
Asked to evaluate the importance of the governor's new stance, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. answered: "It's important -- but not as important as his position when the legislature convenes in January."
Pub Date: 8/14/96