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West County Economic Engine for Region

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When The Business Monthly began covering western Anne Arundel County almost 20 years ago, Southwest Airlines was just beginning to grow its now huge presence at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport. The land that became Arundel Mills, the Live! Casino, the big box stores and Arundel Preserve was barren.

COPT’s National Business Park was in its early stages of constructing new buildings for the National Security Agency, just coming out of the shadows and putting up signs announcing its presence (but the mantra was still, “No pictures, please.”).

The Pentagon’s Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process that brought more defense agencies to Fort Meade had not begun.

And Sen. James “Ed” DeGrange was running for his first term in the Senate in District 32, which encompasses all these major employment centers, making them among the chief economic engines of the region, if not the state.

So it was not unusual for DeGrange, a pro-business moderate Democrat, to be sitting on a panel last month that discussed the impact of the Live! Casino on the local economy. The casino generates more than 3,000 jobs in the area, and more are on the way as a 20-story, $200 million hotel and conference center rises next to the casino. And don’t forget that the Laurel Park racetrack is part of his district, too, DeGrange reminded me in a conversation.

The casino also generates revenue for the area, and plenty of what a developer friend likes to dub “traffic opportunities.” DeGrange recalls the gridlock that occurred the night the casino opened five years ago.

Sports Betting on Table

DeGrange was on a panel organized by the American Gaming Association to tout the positive impact of casinos on local economies. But Geoff Freeman, the head of the trade group representing a thousand U.S. casinos, also had sports betting on his agenda.

It is crucial to “get the federal government out of the way” of sports gambling, said Freeman. Tens to hundreds of millions of dollars are currently being wagered on sporting events in Maryland, and “all of it is being done illegally,” Freeman said, since Congress banned the practice in 1992. “The demand has never been greater.”

Rob Norton, president of Cordish Global Gaming, which runs the Live! Casino, supported the idea, “if sports betting is continuing to expand.” It would be “another reason to bring people to the [casino] facilities,” Norton said. (The company recently dropped “Maryland” from the casino’s name.)

Gordon Medenica, director of the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency, said, “I’d be very supportive of” sports gaming, though the battle is at the federal level.

“The lottery industry is very interested in making this a state issue and not a federal issue,” Medenica said, allowing each state to control the practice, as each do for other gambling.

DeGrange, a budget subcommittee chair, was interested in the idea.

“I think it’s the next step if the feds change the law,” DeGrange said. “It’s already going on” illegally, and if the state were to legalize it, “the casinos that are already heavily regulated by the state would be the place to do it.”

DeGrange can hardly take credit for the economic boom in his district, but in his low key, understated way, he has been supportive and attentive. But the four-term senator may face his toughest challenge next year from Republican County Council Chairman John Grasso, who has announced he will run for the seat.
Grasso Shouting Match

Grasso is anything but low-key and understated. He is blunt, outspoken and contentious, traits that were in full display early last month when he got into a shouting match with witnesses trying to testify on a resolution against racism.
In front of a packed council chamber in Annapolis, Grasso tried cut off people who insisted on bringing up Councilman Michael Peroutka’s past association with the League of the South, a secessionist group. Grasso ruled the comments out of order and demanded they stop talking, but they continued; the confrontation lasted a couple of minutes. The protesters eventually stomped out.

Peroutka Denounces Racism

At a council session later in the month, Peroutka read a statement saying he “categorically denounced these and any other racist statements” made by the head of the League of the South, after Peroutka left the organization in 2014.
“I do not believe, and have never believed, that racism is acceptable,” Peroutka said. “In both private and public policy, we must remember that God created only one race, the human race, and therefore all elevation or denigration of individuals or groups based on skin color is immoral and shameful, because it violates the law of nature and the law of nature’s God.”

“To be clear, I denounce and repudiate white supremacy, black supremacy and every form of favoritism and exclusion based on skin color,” he said.

The Constitution Party’s candidate for president in 2004, Peroutka strongly advocates limited government based on biblical principles. Now a Republican, he is often the lone vote on the seven-member council against laws and programs he believes violate the U.S. Constitution and the county charter.

Peroutka was the lone vote against the county’s $1.5 billion budget in June, as he has been the previous two years.

No Budget Fight

Peroutka’s quiet opposition to County Executive Steve Schuh’s spending plan was about the only objection raised to the budget, one of the smoothest approvals of a county budget in years.

While other counties and municipalities in Maryland declare themselves sanctuaries for immigrants in the U.S. illegally, Anne Arundel County has quietly gone ahead with plans to enforce U.S. immigration laws at the county jail. The move was initiated by Schuh, and opposition has been muted.

Busch: Liver Transplant

House Speaker Michael Busch, who represents the Annapolis area, is continuing to recover from a June 1 liver transplant.

Busch had looked to be in ill health for months, and was clearly ailing during the legislative session, though he denied it. He and his staff had given incomplete and conflicting stories about an illness that had hospitalized him last fall. First, his dramatic weight loss was described as a reaction to a flu shot, then it was said to be a reaction to an antibiotic for an unspecified disease.

When it was announced that he needed a liver transplant, getting part of his sister’s liver, the Annapolis Capital newspaper reported, for the first time, that the antibiotic was given after cancerous skin had been removed. This was the first time the Big C was mentioned.

Despite the illness, Busch has vowed to continue as speaker of the House, a post that has benefited Anne Arundel County mightily.