Gambling opponents are hoping that an alliance with black churches produces an upset defeat of the slots referendum when an expected record number of African-Americans turn up at Maryland polling booths next month.
Slots foes hope that black voters energized by Barack Obama's presidential bid will heed their ministers' objections to gambling - as sermonized from pulpits across the state in recent weeks - and cast a ballot against Question 2, which would change the state's constitution to allow slot machine gambling.
"The success of slots, whether it passes or fails, really is in the hands of the faith community," said Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "Pastors have more influence than elected officials here."
Marylanders United to Stop Slots, a ballot committee, claims endorsements from two of the largest black church networks in the state, tapping into a deep history of political activism among African-American ministers. The anti-slots group has turned hundreds of churches into "literature distribution centers" for anti-gambling material, activists said.
But while urban ministries have formidable get-out-the-vote operations, some of the state's most prominent black pastors are staying out of the gambling debate. And some African-American leaders said they believe a majority of black voters will come out in favor of slots, either because they are swayed by economic arguments or simply like to gamble.
Former state Sen. Larry Young, host of a Baltimore radio talk show with a predominantly black audience, said he has noticed an increase in callers opposing slots but that most are still in favor of the proposal. Young attributes the anti-slots shift in the conversation to the "church base" but noted that he sees many fellow black gamblers at casinos in Delaware and New Jersey.
On Nov. 4, slots proponents "will get the majority of the black vote," Young predicted.
The Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of the 17,000-member Bethel AME Church in West Baltimore, said that bad economic news in recent weeks probably would push a slim majority of black voters into the "yes" category.
"The cuts to the state budget, the cuts to education ... that may cause people to come out and vote for gambling," said Reid, who has decided not to take a formal position on the question despite personal misgivings about gambling.
Slots supporters, among them Gov. Martin O'Malley and Mayor Sheila Dixon, argue that millions of dollars in gambling revenue would be used to improve public education and reduce property taxes.
Relying on the black church to propel an anti-slots message has been a strategy of necessity for gambling opponents, who are up against both the state's Democratic political establishment and the deep pockets of the gambling industry, which has poured millions into a pro-slots campaign.
Opinion polls have long showed that most Marylanders support the concept of slot machine gambling, and thousands head across state lines yearly to wager in West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania. But slots opponents contend that their underdog status will be offset by a record number of new voters heading to the polls in Maryland this year, especially black voters energized by the historic presidential election.
About 3.4 million Maryland voters are registered this election season, up from 3.1 million in 2004, according to the most recent statistics from the State Board of Elections.
Earlier this month, Marylanders United to Stop Slots explicitly linked its cause to Obama's presidential bid. "Even Barack Obama has opposed gambling," an actor said in a radio ad airing on Baltimore urban radio stations. "He knows it's only gonna take us back."
The anti-slots group said it later stripped the reference to Obama - who as an Illinois state senator decried the "moral and social cost" of gambling - after the Democrat's campaign made the request to avoid involvement in a local political issue. But slots opponents say they will continue to emphasize the presidential candidate's reported misgivings about gambling in events targeting the African-American community.
"It's something we certainly mention, and we'll continue to do so," said Scott Arceneaux, a senior adviser to the effort.
Donald F. Norris, a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said that in a state where a quarter of the voters are black, winning the demographic is crucial on statewide issues.
"If you get that, you're doing well," he said.
Norris said he would not be surprised if a majority of African-American voters rejected slots, and called churches "a fertile place to go hunting for votes." But pulling in the other direction are factors such as the endorsement of the referendum by Dixon, Baltimore's first black female mayor.
Recent polling data offers a mixed assessment on voter attitudes about slots by race.
A survey by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies, an independent polling firm, found black voters nearly evenly divided on the slots question, with 43 percent in support and 46 against, a difference within the survey's 3.5 percentage point margin of error.
A Rasmussen Reports survey, however, found that 71 percent of black voters support the referendum, compared with 50 percent of white voters. The survey also showed the strongest opposition among voters who regularly attended church services.
Churchgoing blacks might be particularly attuned to the social costs of gambling, because of evidence showing that some forms of wagering are more prevalent in lower-income and African-American communities.
A study this year of the state lottery found that sales are disproportionately higher among blacks. A national study concluded that problem gambling was higher among blacks than other ethic groups.
"All you've got to do is walk through our community, especially on Friday when it's payday, and you'll see lines at the corner stores, people spending their money on the lottery," Cheatham said.
It is a message that is being shouted from the pulpits as Election Day draws near.
Parishioners listen "an awful lot," said Kevin Slayton of Baltimore, a divinity student who heads the anti-slots group's faith and ecumenical outreach effort. "That's why you see politicians making their way to churches during campaign season."
The Rev. Mark Nolan, who held an anti-slots event at his New Hope Baptist Church in Bel Air last week, said that "taking undue chances is not of God" and expressed concern that slots parlors would be located near residents who can least afford to gamble. His church, with a congregation of more than 500, has given $50,000 this year to help needy families hurt by recent economic troubles.
"We're concerned slots would cause that number to grow exponentially," Nolan said. "We cannot afford to assist the world."
At Greater Mt. Nebo African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bowie, the Rev. Jonathan L. Weaver said he and other church leaders are "speaking very forcefully and prophetically about this issue Sunday after Sunday."
A past president of the Collective Banking Group, a coalition of more than 150 churches that banded together over economic and equity issues, Weaver invokes the Bible in his anti-slots sermons. He also points out that in order for Maryland to generate revenue from slots, residents have to lose money.
"Supporters of slots coming into Maryland are labeling our citizens as 'losers,' " he said. "They are saying that we have to fund services of the state of Maryland by people who are losers."
On the Greater Mt. Nebo marquee, instead of Scripture, Weaver has substituted a different message: "Vote No on Question No. 2."