- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2004

Black religious leaders remain opposed to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s plan to bring slot machines to Maryland, despite his promise that black entrepreneurs would be at least part owners of gambling emporiums.

The Rev. Vandy Kennedy said he went to Annapolis to tell Sen. Ulysses Currie, a prominent member of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus, to “stay away” from Mr. Ehrlich’s legislation.

“We have enough gambling in Prince George’s County [and] we don’t need to have slots, too,” Mr. Kennedy said he told an aide to Mr. Currie, a Prince George’s County Democrat and chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.

Mr. Ehrlich and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, both Republicans, told Mr. Currie and members of the committee last week that “minority involvement” was key in the slots plan, which would put 11,500 machines at four racetracks and 4,000 machines at two sites along Interstate 95.

The black caucus — made up of 42 Democrats — has said it wants both sites to be owned by blacks in exchange for their endorsement.

Mr. Ehrlich has said he will lead a blue-ribbon commission that includes House and Senate leadership in deciding where and who will be offered the franchises.

“I have been working to try to stamp out this mess, this immorality,” said Mr. Kennedy, pastor of Walker Mill Baptist Church in Capitol Heights. “And instead of helping, the legislature is trying to increase it.”

Mr. Kennedy ministers to 200 parishioners in Prince George’s County, which is being considered for at least one of the gambling emporiums.

The Rev. Gregory Perkins, pastor of St. Paul Community Baptist Church, said race is not the issue.

“The fact is, we don’t need gambling in our community, regardless of who the owner may be,” said Mr. Perkins, executive director of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. “A predator is a predator is a predator.”

The Rev. Kevin McGhee, president of the Laurel Clergy Association, an alliance of 20 churches, and senior pastor of Bethany Community Church in Laurel, predicted more outrage from ministers as word spreads about the deal.

“A number of the African-American congregations are not going to be happy about this,” said Mr. McGhee, who is white.

He plans to inform parishioners on Sunday about their elected officials’ stance on slot machines and hopes to bring ministers together to help them with talking points next month.

“We are trying to rally the troops,” he said. “We are not willing to lose even one family to this addiction, and especially to have the state bring it to us.”

Beryl R. Smith, director of public policy and lobbyist for the Presbytery of Baltimore, said her group is attempting to find a more eclectic mix to testify against the plan in coming House and Senate hearings.

Mrs. Smith, who is white, hopes that business owners and researchers also will speak out against slots.

“I think that adding these kinds of arguments to our case are the kinds of arguments [legislators] will sit up and listen to,” she said.

She also thinks that it would be hard to guarantee minority ownership.

“If they guarantee that any one party, person or group would have protected, automatic access to all or one part of these licenses, it would look strange and highly preferential,” Mrs. Smith said.

Last year, a similar slots plan passed in the Senate, but House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, derailed the plan while it was being considered in a Ways and Means Committee meeting. That bill did not have a minority deal to gain support, and neither Mr. Ehrlich nor Mr. Steele have amended this year’s bill, despite the early show of support for minority ownership.

Mr. Ehrlich wants the revenue from the slot machines to go toward decreasing the disparity between rich and poor public school districts.

Mr. Perkins said he missed Mr. Currie during the visit to the State House last week, but is not leaving anything to chance.

“I have made three trips to Annapolis so far and am probably getting ready to make a whole lot more,” Mr. Perkins said.

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