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String Of ‘No’ Votes Leaves Emerging Mass. Casino Industry In Limbo

BOSTON — Casino opponent Brian Gannon stood in front of a Whole Foods Market at a small shopping center in Charlestown, clipboard in hand.

“Hi there, we’re trying to keep gaming out of Massachusetts,” he said to a shopper, one of hundreds who would stop to sign his petition.

Gannon and other casino opponents are pushing for a statewide referendum that would repeal the 2011 law that provides for three resort-style casinos in the state and one slot parlor.

And last Wednesday, they submitted 90,000 signatures — more than enough to qualify for the ballot.

The repeal is a long shot. Attorney General Martha Coakley has found the proposed ballot question unconstitutional — a ruling activists are fighting in court.

But casino opponents have already demonstrated an ability to beat the odds. In recent weeks, four communities — West Springfield, East Boston, Palmer and Milford — have voted down glitzy casino proposals years in the making.

Those votes are the headline triumphs in a revolt no one anticipated when Gov. Deval Patrick signed his long-sought casino bill into law.

That revolt has hardly stamped out gambling. Voters in Springfield and Everett have approved casino proposals by wide margins. Three other communities — Plainville, Leominster and Raynham — are vying to host a slot parlor.

But it’s raised an intriguing question: with casinos making a steady march across the country — they’re now in 39 states — just what is happening here?

Activists like Gannon say the Bay State just doesn’t need casinos.

“I think we can do better than this. We’re not in some desperate circumstance that we need to bring something like casinos to Massachusetts,” Gannon said. “I think we’re a thriving state, we’re a thriving economy.”

The Rev. Richard McGowan, a professor and gambling expert at Boston College, says the state’s relatively strong economy is, indeed, playing a role in at least some parts of the state.

The casino industry, he says, typically targets low-income communities in need of jobs.

“I think as they try to hit more markets where people can say ‘no’ to them, it’s going to be interesting,” McGowan said.

In Milford, a blue-collar and middle-class town about 45 minutes west of Boston, voters did say “no” — by a nearly two-to-one margin.

Activists with Casino-Free Milford erupted last week as election returns filtered into their homespun headquarters at a bowling alley at the edge of town.

“We have been just absolutely amazed at what we can do simply because we’re connected with all the people in town,” said Steve Trettel, co-chair of the group, which raised $24,000 between April and October.

Connecticut gambling giant Foxwoods, a prime force behind the casino proposal, spent almost $800,000 in that period.

“They come to town, they bring the money, they have the big PR campaign,” Trettel said. “But they can’t go neighbor-to-neighbor.”

It’s tempting to see in the casino revolt a return to Massachusetts’ Puritan roots. But it’s really more prosaic concerns about traffic and crime driving the opposition.

A recent survey from the Western New England University Polling Institute found 61 percent of Massachusetts residents in favor of casino gambling and just 33 percent opposed.

But a majority — 55 percent — say they don’t want a casino in their own community.

Even Gov. Patrick, who fought for the casino law, says he would vote against a casino in the tiny Berkshires town where he owns a second home.

So is Massachusetts just a land of “Not In My Backyarders?” Perhaps, but longtime casino opponents like Scott Harshbarger, a former attorney general, see something more exalted in the string of “no” votes.

“I think what we’re seeing now is this remarkable thing called democracy,” he said. “The people are actually speaking.”

That’s not the case everywhere. Just 14 of the 24 states with non-Indian casinos allow local referenda, according to the American Gaming Association, an industry group.

State Sen. Karen Spilka, an Ashland Democrat who helped write the Massachusetts law, says the local veto provision comes from a long tradition of home rule in this state — a healthy respect for cities and towns that’s led to a lot of uncertainty in recent weeks.

“I am a little surprised that so many communities have voted ‘no.’ I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Sen. Spilka said. “We ended up writing a bill that would have three casinos in the state — one in each region. Ultimately, we could end up with one casino for awhile, two casinos, no casinos. I don’t know.”

The voter rebellion is just part of the story. There’s also the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, which has proven a tough regulator.

Last month, the commission raised a number of red flags about Las Vegas bigfoot Caesars Entertainment — vying to run a casino at the Suffolk Downs horse track, which is partially in East Boston, partially in the neighboring city of Revere.

Among the concerns: a licensing deal with a New York hotel company with alleged ties to Russian mobsters.

That focus on associates twice-removed from Caesars sent a shudder through the casino industry.

Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the American Gaming Association, says he’s got no problem with strong regulation. But it is a problem, he says, when every new casino state applies its own standard.

“All businesses struggle if the goalposts are moving,” Freeman said. “And with gaming that’s something we consistently confront from state to state to state. Massachusetts may have taken this to new heights.”

Stephen Crosby, chair of the state’s Gaming Commission, says he understands the industry’s frustration.

“But when the final analysis comes, my job and our job is to implement this law as we think the Legislature and the governor and the people of Massachusetts want it implemented — period,” he said.

Nowhere has the one-two punch of tough regulation and skeptical voters landed harder than at Suffolk Downs, the 78-year-old horse track.

“Suffolk Downs is one of New England’s sporting landmarks,” said Chip Tuttle, COO of the track. “And when it was built in 1935, you know, it was truly a grand palace of racing on the East Coast.”

But the palace has fallen on hard times: no profits in eight years; the big-purse MassCap — the track’s signature race — is gone. Tuttle says winning approval for a casino is key to the track’s future.

That’s proven harder than expected. Suffolk Downs had to sever ties with Caesars when state investigators raised concerns about the company. And East Boston voters delivered a stunning blow when they rejected the casino.

Voters in Revere, home to one-third of the Suffolk Downs property, approved the project. So the track, in an act of political and logistical jujitsu, is trying to push the casino fully onto the Revere part of the property.

For casino opponents like Gannon, the revised proposal is an affront to the democratic process at the heart of the casino revolt.

“First thing that comes to mind is like a ‘Simpsons’ episode where they found oil under Springfield and Mr. Burns put in the Slant Drilling Company to suck the oil out from under the town and skirt around the law,” Gannon said. “This is the most absurd idea I’ve ever heard of — they’re just going to move it over the line.”

Suffolk Downs officials, needless to say, have a very different view; they say their proposal is an effort to honor the wishes of both East Boston and Revere.

And Massachusetts will probably end up with three casinos — even if it takes quite a bit longer than expected. Still, most observers can agree that the ups and downs of the Massachusetts casino process have taken on a certain cartoonish quality.

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