With recent polls showing a drop in popular support for slot machines, pro-slots forces in Maryland are ratcheting up their campaign for November's referendum. And as a budget crisis worsens, Gov. Martin O'Malley plans to visibly promote the slots initiative - potentially linking his political future to its success.
Slots proponents have hired an army of more than 200 canvassers and claim to have already reached 340,000 households and received 12,000 requests for yard signs. An extensive radio and television advertising campaign is in the works, and a slick video appeared on the pro-ballot committee's Web site late last week.
Those efforts, along with behind-the-scenes fundraising by the governor, represent a costly escalation in the showdown over a long-debated issue.
O'Malley has been quietly courting potential donors, such as John P. Coale, a prominent lawyer who lent him $500,000 in the final days of the governor's race. O'Malley, who has expressed ambivalence about gambling in the past, intends to push the referendum while discussing the state budget with voters in coming weeks. The Democratic governor is banking on revenue from slot machines to shore up a yawning shortfall in revenues.
The urgency comes as polls suggest that a loose coalition of anti-slots groups is making inroads in their fight against the plan to install 15,000 slot machines at five locations throughout the state.
In an internal memo provided to The Baltimore Sun, a pollster warned the pro-slots ballot committee For Maryland For Our Future that "sobering poll results suggest victory cannot be taken for granted" and that failure to solidify support could "jeopardize passage" of the referendum.
Frederick S. Yang, who also works as O'Malley's pollster, found that while most voters still back slots - 58 percent in favor; 38 opposed - support dropped five percentage points in the past three months.
The "erosion," as Yang puts it, mirrors a five-point dip reported by nonpartisan pollster Patrick Gonzales between January and September.
The Gonzales poll had slots support at 49 percent, with 43 percent of likely voters opposed. The 6 percentage-point edge was down from 16 points in January.
Steve Kearney, a spokesman for the pro-slots group, said the dip was expected. Slots proponents said they anticipate the tightening race will energize activists and voters who might otherwise have been complacent about the issue.
"I hope it'll be a wake-up call to people, to my members, that this thing is far from a done deal," said Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retailers Association, which has endorsed the gambling initiative.
Daniel Kaufman, a spokesman for the 70,000-member Maryland State Teachers Association, said that the pro-slots union had always expected a close fight and that polls showing declining support come at a good time.
"If it truly does reflect any weakening of support, it's better that it's happening now than a week before the election," Kaufman said.
Slots opponents scoffed at such positive interpretation and said the slide shows the impact of their grass-roots efforts, which includes outreach to churches and the work of outspoken critics such as Comptroller Peter Franchot.
"I applaud them on their spin." said Scott Arceneaux, a senior adviser to anti-slots ballot committee Marylanders United to Stop Slots. "If I call that putting lipstick on a pig, would that be impolitic?"
Arcenaux declined to discuss results of his group's internal polls.
Anti-slots forces have been holding events with state legislators and community groups, and they are also planning to dispatch volunteers door to door to get out their message.
It is unclear what kind of advertising blitz they would be able to afford. Aaron Meisner, leader of the grass-roots group Stop Slots Maryland, said he has had to turn away pitches from television and billboard advertising representatives.
In other states, the pro-gambling side - largely financed by gambling interests - often outspends opponents by wide margins.
In Maryland, slots foes say they expect the recent polling to spur donations to the pro-slots camp from business interests that could benefit from Maryland casinos. "They'll do their best to buy this election," Arcenaux said.
Both proponents and opponents of the slots initiative have declined to reveal the size of their campaign coffers or identities of their donors. They are not required to disclose their finances under state law until October. Some prominent donors said that if they haven't given yet to the pro-slots campaign, they would consider opening their checkbooks before the Nov. 4 election. Others, including First Mariner Bancorp Chief Executive Officer Edwin F. Hale Sr. and Baltimore developer Patrick Turner, said they are staying out of the fight.
Coale, the attorney, said he doesn't necessarily like the slots proposal but would likely donate soon. "Things are heating up," he said. "In a perfect world, we probably shouldn't have slot machines, but we don't live in a perfect world, and the state needs this revenue."
The Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which backs slots as a way to bolster the racing industry, has given "a lot of money," said President Richard Hoffberger, declining to be more specific. A spokesman for Penn National, a gambling operator interested in bidding for the proposed slots license in Cecil County, said the company has donated an unspecified amount to the cause and hasn't decided whether it would do so again.
Mike Gathagan, a spokesman for the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates the Laurel Park and Pimlico tracks, said Magna Entertainment Corp. - which owns both tracks - has not donated any money to the pro-slots ballot committee but may make a slots-related announcement this week. Magna is expected to bid for a slots license at Laurel Park if voters approve the referendum.
O'Malley's advisers say he will discuss the state's budget woes in the coming weeks as he is forced to pare the state budget by hundreds of millions of dollars.
A prolonged economic downturn has led to an unexpected dip in Maryland's revenues. While revenue from slots would not flow to the state for several years, an estimated $600 million in annual proceeds could be used to address long-term projected deficits, if voters approve.
"As we have dialogue about what additional cuts need to be made to the state budget, it will be an opportunity to talk to people about slots," O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said. "He's done all he can to support the referendum, and he will continue to talk about it wherever he goes."
O'Malley once derided slots as a "morally bankrupt" way to fund education when he was Baltimore's mayor, but pushed for the General Assembly to approve the referendum idea as part of a special session convened to address budget shortfalls last fall.
"I'm a proponent in a major, active way," O'Malley said during a radio appearance last week, explaining his stance on slots. But he added: "I will not demagogue on it. I don't believe, as some have said in the past, that the only way to fund essential government services is through gambling. I don't subscribe to that."But O'Malley, whose job approval rating bounced from a low of 37 percent in March to 45 percent this month in the Gonzales poll, faces a dilemma over whether to become the face of the pro-slots movement.
If the slots measure loses, the failure could be seen as a midterm election loss.
"If politicians get too closely connected with an initiative, then it can turn into a referendum on the governor's performance in office rather than a judgment on what policy might be best," said Michael J.G. Cain, a St. Mary's College of Maryland political science professor.
The advocacy campaign is targeting a relatively small slice of voters.
About 8 percent of voters in the Gonzales poll were undecided, as were 4 percent in the Yang survey. The slots amendment was more popular among Republicans than Democrats, and it had the most backing in the outlying areas of the state and the least in the Washington suburbs.
The effort to reach undecideds is heating up.
On Friday afternoon, 35 young pro-slots canvassers gathered at a downtown warehouse before heading out to stake hundreds of yellow signs into Baltimore yards. The $10-an-hour workers chanted their door-knocking script in unison under the watchful eye of Maddy Melton, who directs the statewide field operations for For Maryland For Our Future.
A similar scene takes place most days at four other locations throughout the state, Kearney said.
Oleo Samuels, 20, a Morgan State University junior working for the pro-slots cause, said he has knocked on hundreds of doors and gets a "mixed reception" from Baltimoreans.
Many people still seem to be undecided on the issue, he said.
"Sometimes," he added, "I can sway them."