With his call for a special session on gambling next month, Gov. Martin O'Malley is placing a high-stakes political bet that he can prevail in a struggle over one of the most contentious issues facing Maryland.
A win could burnish his image at a time when he is widely thought to harbor presidential ambitions. But failure to deliver could deal a blow to his standing at home and in the national arena, political observers said.
Flanked on Friday by House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, O'Malley set Aug. 9 as the day for lawmakers to return to Annapolis for the second time since the General Assembly adjourned in April.
This time they will be asked to vote on a proposal to add table games such as blackjack and roulette to the mix of gambling choices in Maryland and to clear the way for a casino in Prince George's County. If lawmakers agree, the measure would then go before voters in the November election.
O'Malley, a Democrat, said the proposal would yield an added $100 million in state revenue in the next budget year alone — a figure that does not include revenue from a Prince George's casino — as well as thousands of construction and permanent jobs.
"All of us know how divisive an issue this can be for us and the General Assembly," O'Malley said. "It's time now to act and put this issue behind us so we can move forward on the other issues."
Some veteran lawmakers among the majority Democrats say the governor is going into the special session with no firm guarantee that he has enough votes to pass a bill.
"In the House, obviously, no, they're not lined up yet," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat. McIntosh, a member of Busch's leadership team, said she needs to examine the details of a bill before deciding whether it's good for the city.
Busch, however, said he's confident the votes will be there by the time the House votes.
Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary's College, said the issue is "full of political pitfalls" for a governor who is widely believed to have ambitions of running for president in 2016.
"It is a tremendous political risk and one that I would have advised the governor to have avoided completely," Eberly said. If O'Malley gets his bill through both the legislature and the potentially difficult referendum that would follow, "he's looking pretty good," Eberly said.
Donald Norris of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County said O'Malley probably is making a good bet.
"It is either a done deal or very, very close to a done deal," said Norris, chairman of UMBC's public policy department. If O'Malley wins, he added, "it will show people who are watching that he's the real deal, that he's got the goods. If on the other hand it blows up, it will not do him any good at all."
The governor has allies in trying to make sure that doesn't happen.
Among those on hand for Friday's announcement were Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, supporters who could help drum up support for a casino bill in their Democratic strongholds.
The governor also was flanked by about a dozen representatives of organized labor — a group that waged a high-powered lobbying effort to push for the gambling expansion even as hopes for a special session seemed to be fading.
Mark Coles, business representative for the Washington Building Trades Council, said union representatives have been meeting with Democrats to impress upon them that the casino bill is a top priority for organized labor because of its potential to create jobs.
Republicans have objected to calling a special session at a cost of roughly $20,000 per day, arguing that any gambling expansion should be left to the regular legislative session in January. House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell of Southern Maryland and Minority Whip Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio of the Eastern Shore denounced the decision.
"The harrowing pressure cooker of a get-it-done-quick special session is not the place to debate an issue as complex as the expansion of gaming in Maryland," they said in a statement. "Moreover, the image of Democratic leaders flanked by organized labor and Las Vegas gambling interests should be chilling to anyone who believes in honest and open government."