Two summers ago, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke left the second floor of the State House believing he had sealed a deal with Gov. Parris N. Glendening to legalize slot machines at Maryland race tracks, with the state's share of the take going toward education.
When Schmoke's account of the private meeting trickled out days later, Glendening denied he had agreed to support slots.
Within weeks, Glendening - who had seen casino-style charity gambling mushroom in Prince George's County during his 12 years as executive there - climbed to new moral high ground. "No slots, no casinos, no exceptions" became his mantra.
Schmoke, whose strong and early support of Glendening in 1994 was vital to his election as governor, fumed at the suggestion he had lied about the deal and over his belief that a promise had been broken.
In many ways, that meeting and the resulting fallout became defining moments for this year's gubernatorial election.
It began a change of the state's political landscape with a shift in alliances and put legalized gambling at the center of a public policy debate.
Almost inevitably, it led to Schmoke's endorsement of another ,, candidate - Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann - two weeks ago.
"The endorsement certainly has changed the dynamics of the Democratic contest for governor," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research, a Bethesda-based polling firm. "For the moment, it has raised interesting political questions about how this race is going to be run."
The endorsement, a dramatic though not completely unforeseen blow to the Glendening campaign, has political risks and benefits - both in the short and long term - for the lead characters:
* At least for now, Schmoke is being viewed by some as a turncoat, driven only by his desire to bring gambling to the city. He has been tagged an ingrate, having been the beneficiary, as Baltimore's executive, of the governor's largess the last three years.
Many of the mayor's chief political allies - state legislators, City Council members and neighborhood leaders - are working against Schmoke and Rehrmann. But it's early; the Sept. 15 Democratic primary is 4 months away.
Glendening, knowingly or not, had challenged the mayor's integrity by saying Schmoke "misunderstood" their slots meeting. And when a furious Schmoke erupted a month after the meeting and hinted that Glendening was not the only gubernatorial game in town for 1998, the governor dismissed the episode, saying, "It's a warm August, and tempers flare a bit."
It seems clear to those who know Schmoke that Glendening had to pay a price, that the Rehrmann endorsement is about something more than the gambling issue. The tone of the mayor's remarks has been pointedly personal. More of the same is expected.
There is little doubt that the endorsement - which gave the Rehrmann campaign a much-needed boost - is just the beginning of a strategy to attack Glendening's integrity, the governor's most vulnerable point.
Some say Schmoke's move puts an end to any statewide political plans he might harbor. Others maintain that by making an enemy of the governor, he puts at risk future state aid to the city - and even the mayor's re-election bid next year.
The ability of Schmoke and Larry S. Gibson, the mayor's politica godfather and Rehrmann's campaign manager, to turn out the vote this year will be closely watched - particularly by potential challengers to Schmoke.
"It really is a hell of a gamble," Rodney Orange, president of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said after the endorsement.
But is it? What is the real risk to Schmoke?
"Is the governor going to take it out on the city? That's doubtful," said Donald F. Norris, a professor of policy analysis at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a longtime observer of local politics.
Glendening's campaign manager, Tim Phillips, said, "The governor's been really good to Baltimore City, has a lot of friends in Baltimore City and understands the importance of Baltimore City to the state of Maryland."
On the other hand, Phillips quipped, "I hope the mayor's not looking for choice seats at the second inaugural."
Whatever the outcome of the primary, Schmoke would seem to make out.
If Rehrmann wins, the mayor wins. If Glendening wins, the governor will still need Schmoke's help keeping the State House Democratic in what promises to be a hard-fought general election in November, likely against Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey, who narrowly lost the governor's race in 1994.
The real danger for Schmoke is that he would be blamed by rightfully angered Democrats if Glendening, a victor in the primary, were defeated by the Republican nominee after a bloody primary.
If that were the outcome, the city would be among the biggest losers because the next governor will oversee statewide redistricting after the 2000 Census.
A top priority of any Republican governor would be to dilute the Democratic stronghold of Baltimore by carving the legislative and congressional districts differently - a task that would be made easier by the city's continuing population hemorrhage.
* For Rehrmann, the short-term benefit of Schmoke's endorsement is the ride her candidacy has been given by the media, offering her name recognition that can't be bought.
The down side is that she could become known solely as the candidate who supports gambling - a real loser of an issue in some areas of the state, particularly in vote-rich, good-government-conscious Montgomery County, the real battleground of the next election.
"The fundamental political misstep in this endorsement is that it forced Rehrmann to run her candidacy for governor around this gambling issue," said pollster Haller, whose company is headquartered in Montgomery County.
Cheryl Benton, campaign manager for Ray Schoenke, the Montgomery businessman also challenging Glendening, is calling Rehrmann "the gambling queen." And the Glendening camp is preparing to label her "the casino candidate," without mentioning her name again.
An anti-gambling blitz by Glendening is the kind of message that will sell in Montgomery, where he needs to win.
"His message is going to resonate with the rest of the state," Norris said. "Slots, I think, are different, but the suspicion that I've heard people voice is that the camel's nose is in the tent, and it's the first step toward broader gambling."
Such a message could offset the governor's negatives with Montgomery voters, stemming from his push to build stadiums for the Washington Redskins and Baltimore Ravens and from his recent decision to delay planning for the Inter-County Connector, a highway that would link Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
To gain in Montgomery, Rehrmann will have to move quickly beyond gambling to show she is more than a one-issue candidate.
* Glendening, at least in the immediate future, has the opportunity to score points against Rehrmann by using the gambling issue as a shield to fend off the anticipated assault on the governor's ethics and integrity.
In the view of many, Rehrmann and Schmoke have handed him a gift, allowing him to paint the slots-at-the-tracks issue as "casino gambling" that will bring crime - organized and other - and corruption to Maryland.
Wednesday night before an audience in Baltimore, Glendenin said, "Everywhere I go, people understand what's at stake: selling our souls."
In response, Schmoke spokesman Clinton R. Coleman shifted the focus.
"If he's suggesting this election is about casinos, he's wrong," Coleman said. "In the mayor's view, it's about trust, truthfulness and, peripherally but very specifically, slot machines at Maryland racetracks to improve schools."
Glendening's political handlers choose not to differentiate between casino gambling and slots at horse tracks, which supporters say would stem the flow of Maryland gambling dollars to tracks in Delaware and West Virginia.
"Sure, it's all the same thing," said Phillips, Glendening's campaign manager. "That's a completely false distinction. If you put up a racetrack up at Caesar's Tahoe, it'd still be a casino."
But Glendening will likely be pressed to explain how he allowed the proliferation of gambling in his county until it was outlawed last year by the legislature. Also, the governor will have to explain how he came to change his mind about legalizing slots at state race tracks - which, until August 1996, he had held out as a possibility if needed to save Maryland horse racing.
But the real question for Democrats remains how badly the candidates will beat up each other on the way to November, when the nominee probably will face Sauerbrey.
"She is soaking up this Democratic bloodbath, and she's got to benefit enormously," Haller said. "They're doing most of the dirty work for her."
William F. Zorzi Jr. covers Maryland government and politic from The Sun's State House bureau.
Pub Date: 5/03/98