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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