Slots role could put Franchot to the test

The Baltimore Sun

A rift has developed over Comptroller Peter Franchot's role in the campaign against legalizing slot machines in Maryland, with some in the anti-gambling coalition unsure whether his high political profile will help or hurt the effort.

It is a problem that both sides face as the multimillion-dollar campaign takes shape in the months leading to November's referendum on legalized gambling. Gov. Martin O'Malley acknowledged recently that his ability to enact his agenda over the coming years is strongly tied to the passage of the slots referendum, and he said he will campaign for it.

The prospect that the public face of the anti-slots campaign could be Franchot, who has frequently clashed with the governor, has already led to Annapolis buzz that the vote could shape up as a quasi- gubernatorial primary between the two Democrats, a perception that could inject the issue of conflicting loyalties into the debate.

But without the strong profile of a statewide elected official and the political machinery, donors and news media attention that inevitably mobilize around them, either campaign could struggle to get off the ground.

"Peter Franchot is a controversial character in some quarters," said Aaron Meisner, the leader of StopSlots Maryland, a grass-roots group that has spent years building a diverse coalition of slots opponents from religious, small-business, rural and progressive communities. "And that issue has the possibility of becoming a distraction. Obviously, his name and his office carry an additional weight, but we want to be clear that from our perspective, this is not about Martin O'Malley or Peter Franchot - this is about the direction of the state."

Joseph Shapiro, a spokesman for Franchot, said the comptroller has been "pretty careful" to "do what [StopSlots] has been asking of him, but he's a statewide elected official, which means he maybe gets a little more attention than the average member of the coalition."

As a result of the Assembly's special session last year, voters will consider in November whether to amend Maryland's constitution to allow 15,000 slot machines at five sites - one each in Baltimore City and in Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties. Within a few years, the locations are expected to bring $600 million to $800 million into state coffers annually.

Some in the StopSlots camp worry that the referendum could turn into a preview of what both candidates officially dismiss as a possibility but that many in Annapolis consider plausible: a primary contest in 2010 between O'Malley and Franchot.

In some ways, the two camps have faced off before, given that a number of those aligned with Franchot and Marylanders United to Stop Slots, a newly formed ballot committee, helped run former Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's 2006 Democratic primary battle against O'Malley. David Weaver, Franchot's chief of staff, was Duncan's communications director. Scott Arceneaux, a senior adviser to the ballot initiative group, was Duncan's 2006 campaign manager.

Both sides say they don't want the debate over slots to become a contest of personalities, but it could be unavoidable, since both leaders are taking prominent roles in the effort.

Asked in an interview with The Sun's editorial board last week if he would campaign personally for the slots referendum, O'Malley said, "Yes. People keep asking me that.

"There are some parts of the state where people have pretty much made up their minds," O'Malley said. "There are other parts of the state where I'll probably have to be more engaged, like Montgomery County and Prince George's and so on."

Those counties happen to be the heart of Franchot's base and, for many years, a hotbed of slots opposition.

This month, Franchot took the lead in a conference call for members of Marylanders United to Stop Slots. It was his role in that planning session, and the fact that StopSlots was initially not let in on the chat, that brought the division between anti-slots forces into the open.

Meisner said he was eventually included on the call and that the initial exclusion of his organization would more rightly be considered as an "operational glitch" than an intentional dig.

Arceneaux said Meisner is one of more than 70 people who form a steering committee for Marylanders United to Stop Slots, which will hold an event sometime next week to officially announce its formation and supporters.

"We understand there's always growing pains when you're putting together campaigns like this," he said. "This campaign's about the issue of why slots are wrong for Maryland and not about any one person."

The pro-slots group For Maryland, For Our Future, has gotten off to a rocky start of its own. Track owners at two of the five locations who are poised to reap a windfall if the measure passes have balked at various aspects of the referendum and so far have withheld contributions to the effort.

Top officials at Magna Entertainment Corp., the Canadian company that owns Laurel Park - the likely recipient of a slots license under the geographic parameters outlined in the referendum - have complained that the racetrack was not specifically named in the legislation. And William Rickman Jr., who owns the Ocean Downs track on the Eastern Shore, has said that he does not plan to do "heavy lobbying" to gain passage of the referendum.

During the recently concluded 90-day General Assembly session, slots backers won the support of the Maryland Association of Counties and the Maryland State Teachers Association, though the latter came after Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller told the group's board members that education funding probably would be cut if the referendum failed.

Craig Varoga, a consultant for the pro-slots committee, dismissed the notion that the group has had any trouble.

"We have momentum," he said, noting that in addition to support from the teachers union and the county association, they also expect help from labor unions that represent workers in the horse racing industry.

"The reason everyone is united on this, and the reason we have such broad support in the coalition, is that it's pretty clear from wherever you sit that the state budget is going to be in a significant crisis if the referendum fails," he said.

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