Tuesday, January 01, 2008

How to Beat Slots

Failing to pass an outright bill after many years of debate, the Maryland legislature has sent the slots issue to the voters. Next November, the issue will finally be decided by referendum. Sixty-eight percent of Maryland residents supported slots in a recent Washington Post poll and the gambling industry is set to pour millions into a pro-slots advertising campaign. So the Free State will soon see beeping machines entitled “Mike Miller’s Mega-Bucks” and “O’Malley’s O’Millions,” right?


As Eric Luedtke points out on Free State Politics, the gambling industry has won only 5 of 16 ballots since 2004, and only 2 of 6 ballots since 2006. Past experience shows that it is possible to defeat the gambling industry even when they start out with a lead in the polls. But it will take disciplined organization, cooperation among unlikely allies, a bit of money and unprecedented volunteer efforts to get the job done.

There are three constituencies that oppose slots, each for different reasons. None of them has a great deal of experience in working with the others. They are:

Secular Progressives
These individuals are Democratic activists who are social and economic liberals and have contributed money and time to past liberal campaigns. They live disproportionately in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties but play important roles in many local Democratic Parties across the state. They oppose slots because they view them as regressive and inherently promoting corruption (especially via political contributions). They would play an important role in any pro-slots coalition, but they are insufficient in numbers to win a referendum by themselves. (The recent special session showed the limits of their power as Montgomery County’s delegation expended their political capital on limiting income tax increases on the rich – hardly a liberal priority.)

Religious Groups
Religious groups oppose slots because they see them as morally wrong. In their view, slots promote crime, vice, addiction and a general decline in the culture. Importantly, religious organizations from all parts of the political spectrum – from the most liberal to the most conservative – detest slots. While secular progressives have occasionally worked with liberal religious groups, they have often been on the opposite side of conservative groups. (See Montgomery County’s recent debate on protections for transgender people.)

Neighbors of Slots Sites
Slots are scheduled to be located at five sites: Worcester County on the Eastern Shore (probably the Ocean Downs race track), Anne Arundel County (probably at Laurel Park race track), an unspecified site in Baltimore City, Allegany County (probably at the state-owned Rocky Gap Lodge), and an unspecified site in Cecil County in the northeastern corner of the state. Many leaders in those areas, including the mayor of Ocean City and the Anne Arundel County Executive, oppose slots. It is reasonable to believe that immediate neighbors of the sites would oppose traffic-generating, crime-creating casinos near their homes. Many residents in these areas are probably Republicans. Some may not be regular voters. But since they are now in the target sites of the gambling industry they may be ready and willing to fight back.

None of these groups can defeat organized gambling alone. But if they unite and focus on their common enemy, they can triumph.

In order to win, these groups must work cooperatively inside a campaign structure set up for the express purpose of winning the referendum. That structure does not currently exist and must be created as soon as possible. It is not enough to simply expand Stop Slots Maryland, the group that has resisted slots up to now. That group has engaged successfully in legislative lobbying, but that is a fundamentally different task than grass-roots organizing. A winning structure would bear a significant resemblance to a Presidential state organization. It must have coordinating leadership but also significant local, perhaps even precinct-level, autonomy. It must give local volunteers the guidance, resources, money and expertise to enable them to wage effective house-to-house campaigns in their own neighborhoods. The gambling industry has outspent anti-gambling activists by seven-to-one in prior campaigns, so the anti-slots forces can only win through organized people power.

Here is what a winning anti-gambling coalition looks like:

State Leadership
The state leadership’s primary functions are to raise money, coordinate (but not control) local activities, supply resources (including training), deal with state-level media and run the campaign’s primary website. The state leadership will not directly control strategy on the ground – that is the domain of legislative district captains.

The state leadership committee should be composed of no more than a dozen prominent anti-slots leaders, possibly supplemented by a broader committee for symbolic value. Each of the three constituent groups must be represented. It is vitally important that none of the three constituencies be relegated to second-class status; otherwise it will lose interest in the campaign. It is also important that the state leadership not be too closely identified with any single politician. If it is, it will succumb to geographic, political and personal rivalries. After all, these are politicians we’re talking about.

The state leadership committee should consider hiring an experienced political organizer as an executive director with a monthly salary plus expenses. This individual will be extremely busy managing the website, directing cash flow, placating occasionally jealous politicians, traveling across the state and otherwise keeping the campaign on track.

The most important task of the state leadership is to raise money. In the 2006 gambling campaigns in Arkansas, Nebraska, Ohio, Rhode Island and South Dakota, the Baltimore Sun reported that a total $54 million was raised by both sides. The gambling industry accounted for 90% of this total. Applying these figures to Maryland on a per capita basis, the Free State’s anti-slots activists would need to raise $1.7 million to match the record of the other campaigns. A quick way to begin would be to ask every anti-slots politician in the state to contribute $4,000 from his or her campaign account. If 50 politicians heed this request, the state leadership would have $200,000 which could immediately be applied to raising more money from the public. An additional benefit would be to identify which politicians were truly anti-slots, thereby revealing others who were anti-slots in their rhetoric but unwilling to back it up with their own campaign funds.

The campaign website is a critical gateway to potential volunteers. It must contain extensive FAQs on the issue, identify supportive leaders, allow monetary contributions (including through credit cards), contain printable handbills and other literature, report news items and most importantly, connect the visitor to their relevant district captains. Each district captain should have his or her own web page through which to communicate about local activities. It is very important that the website not only inform and persuade, but also give the visitor the motivation and tools to become an activist in his or her own area.

Each of the individual state leaders should also tend to their own constituencies. A politician from Montgomery County, for example, could activate his or her own network of campaign volunteers for anti-slots activities. A church leader could initiate talks with nearby religious groups. A conservative leader could seek out resources from national conservative groups that oppose gambling. Each of them could initiate media coverage from local newspapers. The important thing is that these efforts should be coordinated with ground-level activities through district captains as well as with other state leaders. And each must focus on opposition to gambling as opposed to other elements of their agendas – an easier task to describe than accomplish.

District Captains
W. Minor Carter, a lobbyist for Stop Slots Maryland, recently told the Baltimore Sun, “We need a lot of little heroes.” Carter is correct. Anti-slots activists are more motivated and more numerous than pro-slots activists (if there are any), but they must be organized for success. This is the critical task of the district captains, each of whom is selected by the state leadership to manage grass-roots efforts in one of the state’s 47 legislative districts.

The district captains will identify and enroll activists, create and schedule work assignments, and implement locality-specific activities designed to educate voters and turn out the anti-slots vote at referendum time. Each will use a page from the statewide website to provide contact info to prospective activists, announce work assignments and other events, and exchange info with volunteers through attached listservs. District captains will apply to state leadership for literature, access to politicians, local leaders and other resources, and general guidance. But actual work decisions will be made by the captains and their teams and must be customized to local circumstances. For example, a district captain in a heavily Latino area may want to distribute Spanish-language literature. Another district captain near a proposed slots site may want to saturate neighborhoods within a two-mile radius. Yet another district captain may want to forge a close alliance with a locally-prominent religious organization. These decisions cannot be dictated by Annapolis.

While the state leadership should not micromanage the district captains, it is vitally important that they provide the captains with training. Soon after the captains’ selection, the state leadership should arrange a training session in grass-roots organizing provided by experienced political campaign operators. Literature drops, housecalls, training volunteers, scheduling assignments, media relations and other common campaign activities should all be covered extensively. Follow-up sessions, including joint briefings and info exchanges, should occur regularly over the course of the campaign.

Religious groups may want to set up parallel structures because congregations often cross district and county lines. Some may want to produce customized literature reflecting the priorities of their congregations. Others may want to work with closely allied non-profits. Still others may want to bring in assistance from national organizations. These decisions are best left to religious leaders but should be communicated to relevant district captains. On a campaign involving this many different groups in so many spheres of influence, communication by itself will be a significant challenge.

Measurement and Accountability
The state leadership committee and the executive director must strike an appropriate balance between respecting local autonomy and demanding results. Promulgating a measurement system at the start of the campaign would make clear the expectations of district captains – perhaps the sole part of the campaign’s structure under the discretion of the state leadership. Possible measures include number of handbills distributed, number of volunteers coordinated, and number of man-hours worked. Some underperforming district captains may need to be replaced, especially if they fail to produce significant numbers in a jurisdiction with potential (such as Ocean City or Montgomery County). Other district captains may need to be supplemented with aid from nearby jurisdictions. While the district captains should have lots of leeway in deciding how to meet performance measures, the state leadership is responsible for ensuring that those measures are actually realized.

Maryland has rarely seen a grass-roots issue operation of the nature described above. But anti-slots activists need one now. The clock is ticking. Gambling corporations and their allies are already raising money, reserving ad time, filming commercials and printing direct-mail pieces. If the opponents want to maximize their chances for success, the time for counterattack is now.