Between the Lines: Casino Thrills and Shills
Steve Abdow regards the push to build casinos in Massachusetts as a giant step in the wrong direction, a retrograde movement that swears at the state’s proud history.
“This is Massachusetts!” Abdow said, the tone of his voice three parts incredulity, one part anger. “We are known for innovation and being forward-looking. We lead the country on so many issues; why are we doing this? Seeking to become the 38th state to get into casino gambling? Isn’t it kind of below us?”
Abdow paused. His voice softened.
“I really think Massachusetts is better than this,” he said, sounding more sorrowful than irritated.
Deeply involved in the effort to repeal the 2011 law to expand gaming in the state, Abdow brings a number of life experiences to the issue, including the years he spent working in his family’s restaurant business, the Abdow’s Big Boy chain, as well as his work for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts. Over the course of an hour-long interview last week, he hit all the main talking points against the casino movement, animating several arguments with personal insights into the local business, religious and other communities of which he’s long been a part.
He criticized the casino plan on economic grounds, saying that claims by proponents that casinos will create jobs and stimulate the economy are “bogus.” While casino development might result in new jobs—construction jobs short-term and some long-term jobs in the casinos—the overall impact of having big, out-of-state companies sucking up huge amounts of discretionary cash would likely lead to a “net loss of jobs.” He said that local restaurants like the ones he worked in for more than two decades would have no choice but to cut jobs—that, or close altogether.
“The margins in most of these restaurants are thin. If we’d lost 5 or 10 percent of our business to a big entertainment complex like a casino, we’d have been very vulnerable,” he said.
He criticized the politicians who conceived the plan to license three casinos in Massachusetts, then pushed it by using dishonest arguments and allowing the casino industry inside the regulatory and even electoral processes. He noted that Gov. Deval Patrick, who was once a driving force behind expanded gaming, “seems to have abandoned the issue as the polls show it losing support.” Of all the pols who’ve had a hand in pushing casino gambling, Abdow called out Amherst state senator Stan Rosenberg, who wrote the senate’s version of the expanded gaming law, in particular.
“This is Stan’s baby,” Abdow said, noting in particular Rosenberg’s argument as point person for senate president Therese Murray, the casino industry’s biggest ally in the Legislature, “that the state would have a casino on [Native-American] tribal land anyway. It’s 2014 and I see no evidence that he was right. I don’t think there’s going to be an Indian casino in Massachusetts.”
Abdow also criticized the state Gaming Commission, which “is not neutral,” but rather wants “to see gaming expanded,” and is playing a scripted role in “a political campaign.” In the case of last summer’s vote in Springfield in favor of an MGM casino in the city, Abdow said, the Gaming Commission had allowed Mayor Domenic Sarno and the casino developer to effectively hijack the electoral process, using deception not only in the campaign leading up to the vote, but by including a lengthy description of the proposed $800 million project on the ballot itself. In fact, the description was four pages long and included information largely about anticipated payments to the city and jobs for Springfield residents.
Of Abdow’s many criticisms, the one that struck me most had little to do with the grotesque political and marketing tactics employed and tolerated by the governor, the Legislature, the Gaming Commission and local officials like Dom Sarno. Rather, it was Abdow’s hopeful belief that, despite the constant low behavior of our elected officials in the push to expand gaming, Massachusetts is better than this recent foray into gambling suggests.
Abdow may be right. I hope he is. Of course, we won’t know how much better we really are unless the voters have the opportunity to do what our elected officials—the vast majority of them, anyway—have so far failed to do: thank the casino industry for its interest, but decline its offer to operate in Massachusetts.
Unfortunately, the effort of casino opponents now moving from hard-fought local battles in places like Palmer and West Springfield and coalescing in the Repeal the Casino Deal movement has been thwarted by another creature of Beacon Hill, Attorney General Martha Coakley. The AG blocked a ballot referendum to repeal the expanded gaming law, asserting that a successful initiative would violate the constitutional right to compensation for the taking of private property for public use. Abdow and others seeking to repeal the 2011 gaming legislation have appealed Coakley’s ruling to the state Supreme Judicial Court, which is due to rule on the matter before July 9.
As the lawyer for the Repeal the Casino Deal group told me last week, the AG’s case apparently turns on a very narrow legal argument—what Attorney Tom Bean called “hair-splitting.” Coakley and the lawyers representing her office before the SJC don’t dispute the public’s right to repeal the gaming law, Bean told me. Rather, the AG is arguing that the referendum would break an implied contract by prevent the gaming commissioners from rendering decisions, favorable or not, on the applications for gaming licenses before them.
The AG is arguing that the gaming commission has “an implied contract to review the applications and render decisions.” The Coakley team argues that, by “impairing” the implied contract, the referendum would violate the applicants’ “constitutional right to compensation for the taking of private property.”
“What private property?” I asked Bean.
“The implied contract,” he said.
My brief conversation with Bean left me feeling frustrated by my glaring lack of legal acumen but also motivated to spend the rest of the night reading about the case before the SJC. In the course of reading and watching video of a hearing before the SJC, I finally found something that at least attempts to establish what value a casino applicant might derive from having the gaming commission complete its process.
State Solicitor Peter Sacks, speaking on behalf of the attorney general’s office, referred to the “rigorous nature of the [gaming] commission’s suitability investigations,” by which the commission determines whether an applicant has the integrity, good character and reputation to hold a license. That rigor, Sacks argued, “makes the suitability determination a potentially very valuable reference selling point to an applicant seeking to operate gaming establishments elsewhere.”
Having already read the gaming commission’s December, 2013 decision in favor of MGM’s suitability, I found Sacks’ argument laughable, not because I doubt that a suitability determination might have value as casino operators apply for licenses in other states, but because the gaming commission’s investigation in the case of MGM was anything but rigorous.
I defy anyone willing to wade through the legalese that enshrouds the commission’s 12-page decision to find it even remotely rigorous. In it, the commission blithely brushes off concerns about the company’s connections to Pansy Ho, daughter of Stanley Ho, a multibillionaire with alleged connections to organized crime: “MGM was honest in stating that its business practices may not be perfect but that it continually monitors those practices and upgrades and improves them to meet changing circumstances… The commission is satisfied that whatever may have been the case years ago, Pansy Ho’s relationship with MGM is not controlled or influenced by her father, Stanley Ho.” The commission offered no direct evidence to support its finding.
Like many people around the state, I can’t wait to see how the SJC rules next month. While I am hopeful that the SJC is immune to the corruption that has infected so much of the state’s political class, I am also aware of the old saw, “A judge is only a lawyer who knew a politician.”
Meanwhile, I take a measure of comfort from Steve Abdow’s insistence that, whatever the SJC rules, the fight against casino gambling will continue, “certainly into November if we win, and beyond if we must.”
I pressed him a bit to see if he’d picked up any scuttlebutt that might predict the SJC’s decision. Abdow said only that he has high hopes that the SJC “will do the right thing.”
“If the court rules that voters can’t weigh in on this,” Abdow said, “it will set off a storm of controversy at a level we’ve never seen before.”•