Pro-Sports Gaming Group Also Funding Democratic Committees

This sample Democratic ballot being sent to Baltimore City voters has been paid for by the committee encouraging voters to vote for a sports gaming measure on the statewide ballot.

In 2012, when gambling interests were spending tens of millions of dollars to bring a massive casino to National Harbor and allow table games at Maryland’s existing slot machine parlors, lawmakers passed a law preventing casino owners and operators from donating to state political candidates.

The idea was to limit the influence of a powerful industry on policymakers and regulators who would be overseeing expanded gambling operations in the state.

So it was a little jarring to see the campaign committee that has been set up to bring sports gambling to the state making political contributions in recent weeks. It’s perfectly legal — but it’s still worth noting.

The Yes on Question 2 Committee is a campaign entity that is trying to pass Question 2 on the statewide ballot — to legalize sports and event wagering in Maryland. According to campaign finance reports, it has been financed almost exclusively by the two dominant sports wagering companies in the U.S., DraftKings and FanDuel. Those two have pumped $2.75 million so far into the committee (updated campaign finance reports are due with the Maryland State Board of Elections by midnight Friday).

The Yes on Question 2 Committee has spread its money around to top-flight political consulting firms, including the Smoot-Tewes Group of Washington, D.C., whose partner Paul Tewes headed President Obama’s Iowa caucus campaign in 2008; HIT Strategies, a hip, young D.C. polling firm; Screen Strategies Media, a Fairfax, Va., firm whose clients have included former Maryland Gov. Martin J. O’Malley (D); and McKenna Media, the Baltimore-based firm of Martha McKenna, who is a co-founder of the group Emerge Maryland and a leading national Democratic strategist.

But buried within the group’s campaign finance report, alongside the five- and six-figure payouts to the consulting firms, is a $6,000 donation to the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee, which has endorsed Question 2 on the statewide ballot. And the Yes on Question 2 Committee has also paid for mailers in Baltimore, Howard and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore City endorsing Democratic candidates — and the ballot question.

These donations are not being made by licensed casino owners in Maryland — those are banned by state law. And they are not direct contributions to political candidates, which are also verboten in Maryland.

But they are donations by a committee funded by gambling interests to political entities — not illegal, but still a little sketchy.

“This would be more of an indirect donation at best,” said Jared DeMarinis, director of the candidacy and campaign finance division at the Maryland State Board of Elections — the man who flags violations of campaign finance laws.

DeMarinis also noted that the Yes on Question 2 committee is itself a political entity — and there is no rule preventing one political committee from donating money to another, even if it is fueled entirely by the gaming industry.

It’s up to state policymakers, he said, to decide “whether or not the law needs to change to catch up to the other prohibitions” on gambling industry donations.

In a statement provided to Maryland Matters, Rick Abbruzzese, a partner at Baltimore-based KO Public Affairs and a spokesman for the Yes on 2 effort, said the Democratic groups getting funding from the organization are simply part of the coalition of supporters in favor of the ballot measure.

“The Vote Yes on Question 2 Committee is proud to have the support of a diverse group of supporters, including the Maryland Democratic Party, the Prince George’s Democratic Central Committee, several unions, business organizations, and individual candidates for office,” he said. “Given the significance of this issue and this year’s election, Vote Yes on 2 will continue to engage with our supporters to engage with voters to help ensure the passage of Question 2 to help fund public education in our state.”

It isn’t just Democrats: Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) this week also endorsed the ballot measure.

There is no organized opposition.

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.