By ELI SEGALL
ANNAPOLIS (Sept. 14, 2008)—Two years ago, at a political fundraiser, James Pelura III launched a verbal tirade at a fellow member of the state's Republican Party. The reason: she opposed efforts to legalize slots.
But now, with a similar item going before Maryland voters this fall, Pelura has changed his tune.
"All it's going to do is give government control over part of the economy," he said, in a recent interview. "And it's mucking up our constitution for something as frivolous as gambling."
Pelura, chairman of the state GOP, is himself a gambler, but he rejects the current attempt to bring slots by re-writing parts of the state constitution. However, he said, it's hard to explain this without looking like a flip-flopper - a fear held by other party members.
Pelura is one of a few state GOP leaders to publicly take a stance on the Nov. 4 referendum, which would authorize up to 15,000 slot machines at five sites throughout Maryland. Republicans, he said, risk "looking like hypocrites" if they speak out against it, given that most, if not all, supported similar efforts by former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican.
The GOP isn't alone in keeping mum. Most Democrats have also been silent, save for Gov. Martin O'Malley, the referendum's most vocal supporter, and Comptroller Peter Franchot, one of its most visible opponents.
"People have just been quiet about it," said Michael Cryor, chairman of the state Democratic Party. "I don't think it's so much the issue, but people have been so focused on the other matters," such as the presidential campaign.
Cryor, who said many Democrats oppose the item, does not expect the party to take an official position.
Paul Herrnson, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, said it makes little sense for legislators, Democrat or Republican, to voice their opinions on the referendum. The ballot item, he noted, will be voted on by the public, not the General Assembly.
"Most of them opposed it before, and they don't get many benefits opposing it now," Herrnson said, of the Democrats. "Why would they buck heads with their party leader when they're not going to vote on it anyways?"
Although Pelura, a practicing veterinarian, is head of the party, the state GOP has not formally taken a stance on the issue. A decision may come soon, though, as the party's executive committee will meet Sept. 20 to discuss its position on the referendum, among other topics.
"The majority of people are against it," said committee member Louis M. Pope, who opposes the ballot item.
Should the party reject it, it would have some company. Since January, according to a recent poll from Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies, statewide opposition to the ballot item has climbed 5 percentage points, to 43 percent. Statewide support has dropped by 5 percentage points, to 49 percent.
Other groups have been more vocal than the two parties. A pair of activist groups, Stop Slots Maryland and NOcasiNO Maryland, is suing the state to disqualify the ballot item, while another group, For Maryland For Our Future, is working to support the referendum.
Pelura, a Davidsonville resident, wants his party to adopt a position, too, whether or not it agrees with his own.
"I think Republicans in Maryland are owed some kind of comment by the party," he said.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.