The Maryland State Fair is usually a forum for cotton-candy vendors and kids in 4-H clubs showing off livestock - not political controversy.
But the event known affectionately among locals as "the 11 best days of summer" recently found itself in the middle of one of Maryland's longest-fought political debates: whether to legalize slot machines.
The brouhaha began when anti-slots organizers inquired about paying for a booth at the fair, which runs from late August through Labor Day, to get their message out before voters decide the issue in a November referendum.
Howard M. Mosner, long-time general manager of the fair, suspected the request would not be looked upon favorably by the fair board. The fair would benefit from slots because the revenue raised from the machines would augment purses for its horse races and provide money to restore its facilities.
So Mosner tried to broker a compromise by allowing the anti-slots camp a booth only if the pro-slots campaign wanted one.
Slots opponents immediately cried foul, saying the deal could stifle free speech. While Gov. Martin O'Malley and a host of special interests support slots, opponents say their biggest asset is volunteer manpower that they can dispatch to make their case.
"It obviously raises questions about free speech," said Aaron Meisner, the leader of StopSlots Maryland, a grass-roots coalition that sought the fair booth. "We have a decision that is critical for all of the people of Maryland, and there is very little information out there for people to base their decision on. If we're not permitted to speak in that kind of a location, then what does that say about the idea of an informed electorate?"
Slots proponents say that's a red herring. Frederick W. Puddester, head of For Maryland, For Our Future, said the pro-slots group hasn't discussed yet whether to have a booth. "This is the first I've heard of any of this," Puddester said, adding, "I certainly don't think they should be attacking our state fair."
But W. Minor Carter, an Annapolis lobbyist who has worked for the anti-slots camp for years, said the incident demonstrates the David and Goliath nature of their fight. He said slots foes have to travel to parades and farmers' markets to spread the word about gambling's ills and topple the arguments of proponents who are backed by powerful, monied interests.
"I don't understand how the other side decides if we get to appear," Carter said. "You're taking away the one thing we have. They have the money. We have the manpower. This is the only way we are going to be successful."
Proponents have won endorsements for the referendum from the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, the state AFL-CIO and State Teachers Association.
But opponents also have some powerful allies. Comptroller Peter Franchot has lent his high profile and political influence to a new group, Marylanders United to Stop Slots, along with state legislators, clergy and others. They have formed an alliance with StopSlots.
When Marylanders go to the polls in November, they will decide on an amendment to the state constitution authorizing 15,000 slot machines at five locations: one each in Baltimore City and Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties.
Proponents say the money raised by slots would go to education, health care and the struggling horse racing industry. Opponents say slots amount to a regressive tax on the poor and won't deliver the promised revenue.
Mosner, who also serves as president of the state fair, wants slots, and over the years, he's pitched the idea of having them at the fairgrounds. The fair is run by a private, nonprofit group that's sustained by an annual state grant of $500,000 as well as money generated from the fair and other events held at the fairgrounds.
Before the racing industry fell on hard times, the fair held 42 days of horse racing at the Timonium Race Track. That was reduced to 10 days of racing in the 1980s. Then several years ago, when tracks in surrounding states began offering slot machines that generated revenue to augment purses, the Maryland fair cut a couple more days from its racing schedule.
"It's a giant downward spiral," Mosner said.
As for the booths, Mosner said he believes in "equity and fair play and all that kind of stuff," so he didn't want to deny StopSlots a forum at the fair outright. He knows there are two sides to every story, and he added with a laugh, he would be careful not to put the opposing booths side by side.
As for being a political football, Mosner said: "I don't really think we've ever been kicked around from that perspective. I didn't expect that we would over this."