Rodricks: On casino expansion, we'll hold noses and vote no

Big money and backroom deals got Question 7 on ballot

There's a good reason that a majority of Marylanders in a recent poll for The Baltimore Sun said they opposed the expansion of casino gambling in the state: We're pretty much grossed out by the whole thing.

Politics is a messy business, but the politics behind the casino referendum should be declared a Superfund site. As Curt Anderson, leader of Baltimore delegates to the General Assembly, put it last summer: "It really makes you feel kind of unclean."

The way this matter became a question on the November ballot — a cynical Senate president manipulating the legislature and governor into a summer session, $5 million spent by lobbyists, backroom deals that muzzled opposition and got the governor the votes he needed, tax breaks for casino companies — represents all that's wrong with American politics.

What we have here is an almost total co-opting of representative government, where no issue wins on merits or common sense, and big money rules.

Do we really need a sixth casino before all five of the ones we approved at referendum four years ago have started operations?

The answer to that was no until Mike Miller, the longtime Maryland Senate president, decided he wanted a casino at National Harbor in Prince George's County, one of the counties he represents. Suddenly this was an urgent matter.

So Miller forced the issue. He soon had the governor, at best ambivalent about gambling, calling for a special summer session to get the issue out to referendum. Even Mike Busch, speaker of the House of Delegates and a one-time gambling foe, got on board.

Then the advertising started, with groups in favor of the sixth casino spending millions to garner support for the Natty Harbor plan.

Then came the August onslaught of lobbying — about $1.25 million a day of it.

All kinds of deals were cut so the governor, Busch and Miller would have the votes needed to send the sixth casino out to referendum. Baltimore lawmakers got some concessions. So did the Cordish Cos., the developer of the Maryland Live casino at Arundel Mills and once the loudest complainer about another casino operating to its south along the banks of the Potomac. We haven't heard much from Cordish since the summer.

Even the American Legion got into the act. Part of the deal-making included a provision that allowed veterans' halls to have up to five gambling machines each, whether Question 7 passes or not.

Now, of course, the campaign for the sixth casino — and for table games at all casinos — is in full swing, and the prediction is that more than $20 million will be spent on advertising by both sides in the battle over Q7. It's early October, and we're already drowning in the stuff. Gross.

So I was not surprised to see that only 38 percent of Marylanders in the poll for The Sun said they supported the gambling expansion, while 53 percent said they opposed it.

Those results reflect citizen fatigue from the long debate about the scope of legal gambling, and the belief that casinos do not constitute the kind of economic expansion Marylanders want to see their elected officials support.

But more than anything, the poll reflects citizen revulsion at the power of big money to drive politics.

There's nothing new about big money driving politics, of course, and given the Supreme Court's 2009 decision in the Citizens United case, it's only going to get worse. In fact, our fearless legislators have already conceded that point, rejecting a full ban on anyone applying for a gambling license in the state from donating to a Maryland political campaign.

So you could say the casino interests have run the table on the Maryland General Assembly with the help of the state's Democratic leadership. (If Republicans were a majority here, they'd be doing the same thing.)

But voters have noticed the scale, blatancy and haste of this particular deal. It looks bad. It smells so bad. On Election Day, we'll be holding our noses and voting against Q7 — a nice, quiet rage against the machine.

Bauman and gays

Robert Bauman, the former Republican congressman from the Eastern Shore, contacted me recently to correct my reference to his views on homosexuality while he served in the House of Representatives (1973-1981) before a scandal involving a male prostitute ended his political career.

As strident a conservative as Bauman was, he says he made no public declarations against homosexuality, as I reported. A former Sun editor supported that, saying research by reporters at the time of the Bauman scandal found no anti-gay pronouncements.

Bauman later publicly acknowledged that he was gay. He told The Washington Blade in January that he cast only one vote — prohibiting the U.S. Legal Services Corp. from taking on gay-rights cases — that constituted public opposition to the interests of homosexuals. "Let go of that part of the Bob Bauman myth," the former congressman wrote me in an email. "It still hurts when I see or hear it repeated."

drodricks@baltsun.com

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