Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has a gambling problem. Even though developers haven’t even broken ground on some of the five casinos already approved for the state, O’Malley is devoting considerable summer energy to pushing for a sixth at National Harbor in Prince George’s County.
The owners/operators of the other five sites are understandably upset. Some of those businesses haven’t even opened and the governor already wants to approve more competition for them. If it was so important for the state to have six sites, why not factor them all into the original plan already pitched to — and approved by — voters?
Whatever the reason, O’Malley is pushing hard and has met with Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Maker and Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett to advocate for his plan. He needs the state legislature to come back into special session and vote on the sixth site by mid-August to make the November ballot. (Under Maryland law, gambling-related legislation must be approved by voters.)
But O’Malley’s insistence on a special legislative session to approve the sixth site could carry unintended and grave consequences for the state’s gay and lesbian residents. He’s literally gambling with our rights.
If the legislature approves the National Harbor site, the large corporations that are already operating or preparing to operate in the state will spring into action and dump tens of millions of dollars into a campaign to defeat it at the ballot. They will target those who object to gambling on religious grounds — namely conservative black voters in P.G. County and conservative whites in the western part of the state. Those are the same voters most likely to oppose the marriage equality law, which is already approved for the November ballot.
If that sounds like hyperbole, take a look at what happened in Ohio when two casino goliaths went head-to-head in a similar situation in 2008. Ballot issue 6 that year pitted two gambling companies — Lakes Entertainment and Penn National Gaming — against each other over efforts to build a new casino. The two companies spent a whopping $62.2 million in the fight, more than double the previous record for most expensive ballot campaign in Ohio history, according to the Columbus Dispatch.
That number dwarfs anything the two sides in the Maryland marriage fight have contemplated spending. By way of comparison, the head of the Marylanders for Marriage Equality coalition said he can wage a campaign with a budget of $5-7 million. Coincidentally, Penn National owns the Hollywood Casino already operating in Perryville, Md., and a subsidiary of Lakes Entertainment won the bid to operate the Rocky Gap Casino in Western Maryland. The two companies that dumped more than $60 million into a fight over a single casino in Ohio have a vested interest in blocking development of the National Harbor site, so we can reasonably expect to see similarly astronomical sums spent here. That money will be used in large part to wage a sophisticated campaign to target and turn out those aforementioned conservative voters.
O’Malley took the welcome step of (finally) endorsing marriage equality, lobbying for its passage and then presiding over a joyous signing ceremony of the bill in Annapolis earlier this year. Of course marriage isn’t the only important issue and O’Malley has to juggle multiple, sometimes competing interests. But in this case, his push for a sixth casino is reckless and threatens to undo one of his signature legislative achievements with little to no payoff. Sure, supporters of the National Harbor plan claim the casino will create a thousand new jobs. But that’s far from assured given all the competition from the five other Maryland sites, not to mention nearby Delaware and West Virginia and their already established venues.
Further, O’Malley fancies himself a 2016 contender for president. That race will likely feature New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who fought for and won marriage equality in his state — and he did it with a Republican Senate. If marriage goes down on O’Malley’s watch, it’s a black eye for his presidential ambitions in a year in which full support for marriage equality will be required of any serious Democratic candidate for president.
And political interests aside, waging an all-out fight to preserve the marriage law is simply the right thing to do. O’Malley should put the needs of gay and lesbian families ahead of the greedy interests of the tawdry players in the world of casino gambling. His willingness to roll the dice with our rights at stake is deeply disappointing and once again calls into question the seriousness of his commitment. He should abandon the call for a special legislative session and allow the casinos that have already been approved to be built before determining if the state can absorb another gambling site. If he won’t abandon the effort, then members of the House of Delegates — particularly the openly gay and lesbian members — ought to push back hard against this ill-conceived plan.