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MoCo Leader Goes For Gold On Slots

A s the two parties and the nation prepare for the Olympics of politics, let's pause to see how a master performs one of the most daring events. Watch closely now as Ike Leggett, the highest elected official in Montgomery County, goes for gold in Evolution of a Principle:

In 2001, County Executive Leggett, a professorial gentleman with strong roots in the civil rights movement, was, by his own account, "undoubtedly opposed" to slots. He had stood by that position for many years. As late as 2005, he said state-sponsored gambling in the form of slot machine palaces "negatively impacts the minority community and the poor and the vulnerable."

Then, last year, when Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley started pumping for slots to fill a gaping budget hole, Leggett saw himself and his county in a tough spot. Without slots money, the governor would move inexorably toward new taxes, which would inevitably land hardest on the affluent. As leader of the state's wealthiest county, Leggett cringed in anticipatory pain.

So he took the first step: "Personally, I oppose slots," Leggett said in the midst of last year's budget fight. "But in the context of where we are today, everything is on the table." Only by ensuring that the county remained a friendly place for the rich could Montgomery continue to provide extensive services for the poor, Leggett said.

"My fight was not for the wealthy, but what the wealthy provide," he said then. So Leggett asked his fellow Democrats representing Montgomery in the legislature to zip their lips rather than speak against O'Malley's push for slots. With Leggett's help, two-thirds of the county's delegates voted to put slots on this November's ballot.

Now, Leggett is poised to abandon any pretense of opposition to slots. "I'm examining my position, and I expect to have a statement in the near future," he tells me. "I'm convinced that unless we have new sources of revenue, there will be significant cuts in state spending that will come back to the county in a big way, because we are always hit disproportionately hard."

In a strange way, Leggett's flip is an act of political courage: To be pro-slots in liberal Montgomery is to stand up against a majority that tends to see slots as a morally dubious, inequitable enterprise.

"I never believed Ike Leggett and other faux-liberal Democrats would join the march to turn Maryland into the next amusement park for gambling," says Del. Luiz Simmons (D-Montgomery), who has long opposed slots. "It's a betrayal of the racial minorities who are preyed upon by this pathology of hope, this belief that you're going to turn your life around with a single bet." He points to Maryland lottery data showing that much of the money pouring into that game comes from the poorest Zip codes, mainly in Baltimore and Prince George's County.

Simmons says a Leggett endorsement will be more than mere words. "So many Democrats who pretended to be opposed to state-sponsored gambling turned out to be only against the Republicans who were pushing for it. Now, when an African American political leader comes out and legitimizes the exploitation of vulnerable constituencies, it gives permission to people who don't need much of a push to dismiss those populations."

Leggett concedes that slots would shift some of the burden of raising revenue from the wealthy to the poor. He is clearly uncomfortable with his new thinking. But almost as if he's still trying to convince himself, he reels off the pro-slots arguments: Without slots, inevitable spending cuts would hit the poor hardest. Without slots, those who can least afford it would still go to neighboring states to gamble. If they got hit with higher taxes, the county's top earners, the 3 or 4 percent who already pay 40 percent of Montgomery's taxes, might decamp to low-tax Virginia. And if slots money is used to support the county's excellent schools, then it's okay, because "the success of our schools disproportionately helps those most in need."

"I'm in the cross hairs," Leggett says. "For 15 years, I've said no, but the issues are more nuanced now."

Purity has little place in politics, which is at bottom the art of compromise. But compromise ought to be built on girders of principle. The spectacle of this year's presidential candidates leaping away from what had seemed to be rock-solid positions has a hopeful nation rolling its collective eyes: John McCain, who won the maverick label as a secular wiseacre, reinvents himself as a man driven by deep faith. Barack Obama, who rose to prominence as the guy who wouldn't play the political game, flips to embrace offshore drilling and reject public financing of his campaign.

There should be room for honest changes of opinion in politics. But the original and, dare I say, real character of the man ought to be recognizable in any new position. Ike Leggett has a rationale for his forthcoming about-face on slots, but will it make sense to those who have always seen him as a quiet, strong advocate for those in need?

By Marc Fisher |  August 24, 2008; 9:21 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

For his flipping on slot Machines, Ike Leggett will always be known as a cowardly, political manipulator, who change his story simply to please Governor O'Malley. How this shallow, low excuse, for an Executive ever managed to be elected to anything, is beyond comprehension.

Posted by: DOC | August 24, 2008 2:33 PM

OK. We will have slot machines. Why not legal prostitutes? Or murder for hire? All proven money makers.

Posted by: Gary E. Masters | August 24, 2008 3:01 PM

"How this shallow, low excuse, for an Executive ever managed to be elected to anything, is beyond comprehension. "

Easy to answer. Lots of us like him.

Posted by: Gary E. Masters | August 24, 2008 3:03 PM

The principled position is to oppose slots rather than go for the easy solution of an immoral system for raising revenue. Montgomery has been spending beyond its means due to the inflated property taxes that it has reaped over the past few years; spending cuts to better balance the budget are the appropriate thing to do rather than go immediately to tax increases (aren't I already paying an extra percentage point in sales taxes?) or to slots. Oh, and if people want to leave Montgomery for NoVA and lower taxes...good riddance.

Posted by: wmarton | August 24, 2008 3:13 PM

Wash Post arote:

"In a strange way, Leggett's flip is an act of political courage: To be pro-slots in liberal Montgomery is to stand up against a majority that tends to see slots as a morally dubious, inequitable enterprise"

That is the perverse thinkinng that has degenerated elected office to people "on the take" to lick every dollar while they are in office.

There is not one thing honorable about Ike Leggett. He wants to get his, while he can.

If the attorney general won't investigate Ike and his developer friends then I guess the voters will do it themselves.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 24, 2008 3:51 PM

The Conservative mind is addled with a baseless belief system. Government does no good and should be eliminated. Government should spend on necessary items like aid to businesses and war. Government should never regulate. Government should outsource everything including oversight of the outsourced activities. Taxes should be cut to the bone. Nothing should be spent to assist the poor. Nothing should be spent that would inconvenience businesses. If and when there is shortfall of revenues in government, do not under any circumstances raise taxes except on lower and middle class members of society who are powerless to shift some of the burden to the upper class. Best of all, if you can increase revenue through means other than taxes, by all means do so. For example, slot machines and the numbers racket. Government is not the solution. Government is the problem. There is something perverse in the idea of funding socialized education (e.g. Montgomery County Public Schools) with revenues from slot machines. Ike Leggett must raise money to run the county government. His hands are tied. The only solution besides a hateful tax increase, and besides a very substantial spending decrease, is slots revenue. Should Joe Sixpak blow his wages on gambling in place of rent, butter and eggs, so what?

Posted by: BlueTwo1 | August 24, 2008 4:04 PM

There is no courage here. If Bob Ehrlich were still Governor of Maryland and made the same arguments that O'Malley has made, Leggett would have opposed slots no matter what. This is partisan politics and nothing more. He is following his State party leader like a good little puppy dog.

Ike Leggett is turning Montgomery County Maryland into a third world nation while taxing legal citizens into poverty. He has no redeeming qualities.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 24, 2008 4:15 PM

Leggett is doing what O'Malley wants him to do. If he doesn't, O'Malley will decrease state funds to Montgomery County. It's all part of the slimy politics in the State of Maryland.

Posted by: OK | August 24, 2008 5:36 PM

I have to agree with anonymous. For four years, Gov Bobby tried to legalize slots, and the democratic "leaders" in Annapolis fought him tooth and nail -- including the current O'Gov. But now that there is a democrat in the governor's mansion, most of the politians in opposition to slots have changed their tune.

A new low in rank hyprocisy...and the local media (both the WaPo and the Sun, which is the O'Gov's personal PR paper) have been quite slow to point this out.

Posted by: educmom | August 24, 2008 6:28 PM


Posted by: educmom | August 24, 2008 6:29 PM

How many children will go hungry because of slots and every politician that supports slots is responsable...

Posted by: Dwight | August 24, 2008 6:39 PM

"How many children will go hungry because of slots" Say what? Little old ladies on pensions play slots. Horse racing in Maryland will die without slots, and while that might please the PETA folks, lots of low wage workers with families will lose their jobs and more horses will go to slaughter. Is this the marijuana argument - playing the slots leads problem gamblers to the hard stuff? I don't see you Calvinist prigs screaming about the Maryland Lottery.

Posted by: grey parrot | August 24, 2008 7:32 PM

Political Courage...what does that mean? Courage is to act rightly in the face of popular opposition, shame, scandal, or discouragement. Politics is the process by which groups of people make decisions that affect others' lives.

Political Courage means saying "Slots are wrong! They are wrong for the poor, they are wrong for the rich, they are WRONG!!!" Where is the courage or the good politicas in saying slots are OK?

"Del. Luiz Simmons (D-Montgomery), who has long opposed slots. "It's a betrayal of the racial minorities who are preyed upon by this pathology of hope, this belief that you're going to turn your life around with a single bet." He points to Maryland lottery data showing that much of the money pouring into that game comes from the poorest Zip codes, mainly in Baltimore and Prince George's County."

I could not agree more, approving of slots is a betrayal!

Posted by: Not a Polititian | August 24, 2008 7:46 PM

I think Leggett has generally proven to be a good executive who has been up to making tough decisions and not afraid to deliver bad news honestly. However, I disagree with his changing his mind on slots.

I think the "fiscal-miracles" being promised by gambling interests are mere sales-talk and we really need to be weary of the "Atlantic City, MD" scenario.

Posted by: Donny | August 24, 2008 8:24 PM

Educmom and anonymous are right on. Ike's reversal and O'Malley supporting slots would never had happen if Ehrlich was still in office. Until the voters of Maryland start electing some more republicans and making Annapolis balanced between the jack-asses and elephants, this non-sense will continue. There are presently a few people (Busch, Miller & O'Malley) in Annapolis that dictate what issues/bills are brought up and which ones get swept under the carpet for personal gain. Then you have their puppets following close behind to lick up their crumbs.

Posted by: Nils | August 24, 2008 8:57 PM

Maryland already has a lottery, and a long history involving gambling and horse racing. How are slot machines any different?

Posted by: kennedye | August 24, 2008 8:59 PM

I think it's great - no slots in MoCo, and I won't be taxed for the budget shortfall.

While I'm generally opposed to slots, this works for me! Keep those slots in Balmore City & PG and send the $$ our way, since we pay in so much anyway.

Posted by: Just NIMBY | August 24, 2008 10:12 PM

In this debate, we hear a lot about the families that will lose their rent money to slot machine gambling. Yet, other factors contribute far more to social problems than slot machines. Only 1 to 3% of people are gambling addicts, compared to 20 to 25% of people who have problems controlling alcohol use, yet we don't outlaw alcohol.

Think too about all the families who are struggling because an inadequately-funded school system was unable to meet the needs of struggling students and help them to achieve well-compensated careers. Let us remember that only 20 to 25% of students now complete college. If schools could double that percentage with more individual attention and plenty of modern but expensive technology, the benefits to society as well as the affected families would be enormous.

That is the reason that it would be immoral to turn away from this, the only possibility for increasing school funding. To those who are opposed to slots, I say, "What is your alternative for the increased funding promised by the Thornton funding plan? Or are you content to have Maryland's schools underfunded far into the future?

Posted by: jrsposter | August 25, 2008 12:20 PM

The one thing I do not understand are the people that say "It's a betrayal of the racial minorities..." or say this unfair to the poor or morally wrong. As far as I know, nobody is sticking a gun to anyones head and forcing them to play slots. Have we became such a "nanny" society that people can not be trusted to spend their own money how they see fit? If this is a pastime that "racial minorities" or poor people enjoy, then who are we to tell them not play slots? Does that mean if we checked bank accounts and only let white rich folks in it would be okay to have slots?

Posted by: Anonymous | August 26, 2008 4:55 AM

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