- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 6, 2003

ANNAPOLIS The debate over slot machines is dividing black churches and lawmakers, with ministers saying elected officials are forgetting the poor and lawmakers saying they want to help black entrepreneurs share in the profits.
"Our concern is not wealthy African-Americans," said John Foreman, a deacon at Brown's Memorial Baptist Church in Baltimore. "Our concern is the community here."
Mr. Forman is among several black ministers critical of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus, which is helping former pro athletes and other black entrepreneurs try to partake in the potential estimated $1 billion annual profits from slot-machine gambling in the state.
"Get the drugs, unemployment and crime out of here. That is what is a priority in this area at this time," said Mr. Forman, whose church overlooks a blighted neighborhood and Pimlico Racetrack, one of four Maryland tracks where Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. proposes to install a combined total of 10,500 slot machines.
Delegate Obie Patterson, Prince George's County Democrat and the black caucus chairman, confirmed Tuesday that former basketball star Julius Irving and former football star Joe Washington had talked with state delegates about their interest in slots.
Mr. Patterson said casino magnate Don Barden did not attend the meeting, but he and several sources confirmed that Mr. Barden had visited Annapolis recently. Mr. Barden owns the Fitzgeralds Casinos in Black Hawk, Colo., Las Vegas and Tunica, Miss.
Between 25 and 30 lawmakers in the 42-member black caucus will support slots only if minority ownership is part of the legislation, said Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
"It's a deal-breaker for African-Americans," he said.
He restated the opinion of black lawmakers that minorities should have at least part ownership in every major enterprise coming to Maryland.
"If people are going to benefit, why shouldn't wealthy African-Americans benefit as well?" Mr. Rawlings asked.
He dismisses the claim that slot-machine gambling would do the most harm to blacks, who account for a disproportionate amount of lottery sales and represent the majority population around three of the tracks Laurel in Anne Arundel County, Rosecroft in Prince George's County and Pimlico.
The fourth slots casino is slated for a track near Cumberland, an economically depressed but mostly white community.
"If you go to Atlantic City, Delaware or Charles County [West Virginia] and look at who is playing slots, it's not poor black people," Mr. Rawlings said. "Look at what is happening in the places where gambling is located. The economy has improved dramatically."
Merchants around Pimlico are not so sure. They say the thousands of spectators at the Preakness Stakes each spring rarely buy from neighborhood stores, and neither will slots gamblers.
The schism could be devastating to Mr. Ehrlich's plan to use slots revenue to close a $1.2 billion budget shortfall in fiscal 2004 and add $600 million a year to the state's public education system. If the bill fails to pass this year, it will leave a $395 million hole in the governor's budget that likely will result in deep funding cuts because Mr. Ehrlich has vowed to veto most tax increases.
Black ministers have been key players in the effort to block slots. Mr. Ehrlich accused his main opponent on slots, House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat, of "playing the race card" when he rallied ministers to aggressively lobby against the bill.
However, budget problems have forced black lawmakers to ignore the ministers' pressure a dangerous political move, said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, Baltimore Democrat.
A decision to support slots could cost lawmakers in the next election, said the Rev. C.H. Johnson of Christ Missionary Baptist Church in Fort Washington, near Rosecroft Raceway.
"Not only are they out of step, but they are shortsighted about what they must do to stay in political power," said Mr. Johnson, also a leader in the Progressive National Baptist Convention. He said the black lawmakers were sacrificing a core constituency while looking for "quick-fix money" for education and perhaps to finance future campaigns.
"I am not going to respond to the religious community," Mr. Patterson said. "I am going to respond to the community at large."
Mr. Patterson also said he was more concerned with shaping the "best possible package" that would provide for jobs, community-development funding and minority-ownership opportunities.
Mr. Patterson said he has not considered the political advantages of helping wealthy black investors. "I haven't even decided if I'm going to run again," he said.
Sen. Ulysses Currie, Prince George's County Democrat and Budget and Taxation Committee chairman, says minority ownership is important, but that he also is concerned about finding money to improve the states' worst-performing school systems, in Baltimore and Prince George's County.
He also said casinos would create jobs and attract few black patrons. "I went to Delaware Park on Sunday," said Mr. Currie. "I looked around and the people playing slots were working-class people. It was 95 percent white."
Not all black lawmakers are championing the black casino investors.
Delegate Hattie N. Harrison, a Baltimore Democrat in office since 1973, said she will vote in favor of slots, but wants some of the revenue to go directly to neighborhoods surrounding the racetracks.
"I resent them putting this in the low-income neighborhoods," she said. "I'm concerned about the fact that the neighborhoods get very little. That means the people get very little."
However, Mrs. Harrison does not think her colleagues are out of touch with their constituents, saying Mr. Ehrlich's election in November can be viewed as a referendum on slots. "These people said: 'We want slots,'" Mrs. Harrison said.

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