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What was behind this string of defeats? And what did it say about Massachusetts?
I spoke with gambling experts. I visited the proprietors of a struggling horse track hoping that a casino might keep it afloat. And I spent time with anti-casino activists celebrating another victory at the polls.
What I found was not a moralistic return to Massachusetts’ Puritan roots, but rather some interesting structural explanations. The state’s gambling commission has been particularly tough. And Massachusetts, unlike many other states, allows local communities to veto casino plans in referenda.
The challenge, in writing the piece, was to point out those structural explanations while capturing the color and texture of the opposition movement.
Host: Casino gambling has made a steady march across the country in recent decades. Thirty-nine states now have casinos.
Massachusetts opened the door to become the 40th state two years ago when lawmakers approved a casino law. But after a string of casino proposals were rejected by local communities there are obvious second thoughts.
This morning, WBUR's David Scharfenberg takes a look at what could be a mounting casino revolt.
[Ambi of parking lot, shopping carts].
Saturday morning at a small shopping center in Boston. Brian Gannon, an anti-casino activist, is collecting signatures for a ballot measure.
Gannon: Hi there, we're trying to keep gaming out of Massachusetts.
[Bring up ambi of parking lot, Gannon]
The idea, as his big red sign suggests, is to "repeal the casino deal." That's the 2011 law that provides for three resort-style casinos in the state and one slot parlor.
Gannon: Can you sign for me?
[Fade under ambi of parking lot]
Gannon collects hundreds of signatures here. And in the coming days, casino opponents will submit almost 90,000 — more than enough to qualify for the ballot.
The repeal is a long shot. Attorney General Martha Coakley has found it 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 billion-dollar proposals years in the making.
Activists like Gannon say the Bay State just does not need casinos.
Gannon: 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. I think we're a thriving state. We're a thriving economy.
Father Richard McGowan, a gambling expert at Boston College, says the state's relatively strong economy is 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.
McGowan: I think as they try to hit more markets where people can say "no" to them, it's going to be interesting.
Here in Milford, a blue-collar and middle-class town about 45 minutes west of Boston, voters did say "no."
[Ambi of crowd erupting]
Casino opponents erupted last week as word of a landslide victory filtered into their headquarters — a bowling alley on the edge of town.
Trettel: We have been just absolutely amazed at what we can do simply because we're connected with all the people in town.
That's Steve Trettel, co-chair of Casino-Free Milford, which raised 24 thousand dollars between April and October.
Connecticut gambling giant Foxwoods, a prime force behind the casino proposal, spent almost 800 thousand in that period.
Trettel: They come to town. They bring the money, they have the big PR campaign. But they can't go neighbor-to-neighbor.
[Fade under ambi from gathering]
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 Governor Deval 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.
Harshbarger: I think what we're seeing now is this remarkable thing called democracy. 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 Senator Karen Spilka, an Ashland Democrat, helped write the Massachusetts law.
She 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.
Spilka: I am a little surprised that so many communities have voted "no." I don't know what's going to happen. 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.
Crosby [at microphone at a meeting]: All right, let me just put this in context... [fade under]
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 horsetrack, 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.
Freeman: All businesses struggle if the goalposts are moving. 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.
Crosby: 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.
Nowhere has the one-two punch of tough regulation and skeptical voters landed harder than at Suffolk Downs, the 78-year-old horse track.
It's a place rich with history. On the lower level, just behind the grandstand, a series of pink, yellow and orange banners proclaim the winners of the MassCap — the track's signature race. One pays homage to the legendary Seabiscuit.
Chip Tuttle, COO of the track...
Tuttle: Suffolk Downs is one of New England's sporting landmarks. And when it was built in 1935, you know, it was truly a grand palace of racing on the East Coast.
The palace has fallen on hard times: no profits in eight years; the big-purse MassCap, 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 [bring up parking lot ambi], collecting signatures at the shopping center, the revised proposal is an affront to the democratic process at the heart of the casino revolt.
Gannon: First thing that comes to mind is like a "Simpsons" episode where they found oil under Springfield and Mr. Burnes put in the Slant Drilling Company to suck the oil out from under the town and skirt around the law. 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.
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.
[Music up — Simpsons theme]
For 90.9 WBUR, I'm David Scharfenberg.
For Boston’s Asian-American Community, A Political Arrival
Spend any time in the city and you will hear talk of the “new Boston” – younger and more diverse than the old, white, blue-collar model that prevailed for decades.
With Boston set to elect its first new mayor in a generation, one of the central questions was whether this “new Boston” would show up at the polls and elect a different kind of leadership.
Much of the focus was on black and Latino Boston. But I thought it would be interesting to look into the city’s often overlooked Asian-American population which, I’d heard, was engaged in its own struggle between old and new.
In Chinatown, an old-school ward boss – Frank Chin – was doing battle with a younger, more progressive set. And in the meantime, a newer Vietnamese immigrant population was looking to establish itself politically.
The piece takes us from Chin’s favorite Chinatown restaurant to the first meeting of a new Vietnamese activist group. And it asks: how is this community evolving politically, and what does that evolution say about Boston politics writ large?
HOST: It’s preliminary election day tomorrow, in the Boston mayor’s race, as voters narrow the field of 12 candidates down to two.
One of the biggest questions on election day will be whether the new Boston — younger and more diverse — will show up at the polls in large enough numbers to influence the outcome.
And the rapidly growing Asian-American community is among the groups in play.
This morning, WBUR’s David Scharfenberg looks at how the Asian vote is chagning, and the role it might play in this race.
[AMBI OF MAN SPEAKING CHINESE AT EVENT]
At the Josiah Quincy Elementary School in Chinatown, Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley is just the latest mayoral candidate to make his pitch to voters.
CONLEY: My grandfather James Conley was born on Tyler Street in what is today Chinatown. [CHINESE TRANSLATION AND APPLAUSE]
There’s an audience of about a hundred. And he seems to be making inroads.
CONLEY: Does that make me an honorary resident of Chinatown?
[CHINESE TRANSLATION, LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE]
If so, that means I’m the only candidates who has roots in Chinatown.
But Conley already has the support of the most powerful man in the room — a slight figure in a pink dress shirt known as “Uncle Frank.”
[AMBI FROM GREAT TASTE BAKERY AND RESTAURANT]
CHIN: My name is Frank Chin. I’m 81 years old.
Frank Chin sits at the back of his favorite spot — the Great Taste Bakery and Restaurant. There are dumplings on the table and pastries filled with sweet lotus paste.
It’s just a couple of blocks from the Chinatown apartment where he was born.
CHIN: My mother died when I was born. So we went back to my father’s first wife, living in a village in China. And she took us in. And she treated us better than her own.
Frank was just 14 when his second, adoptive mother died. And he returned to Boston with nothing.
But over time, Frank and his brother Billy built a small empire. They invested in restaurants and real estate and constructed a political machine in a community that had been largely ignored by city hall.
Frank says when he checked the voter rolls in 1970, he found just 300 Chinese surnames. By 1977, after a voter drive, he’d upped the total to 3600. And that meant clout.
When Frank wanted public funds to build a large, decorative gate at the entrance to Chinatown, he sent an emissary to City Hall with a detailed proposal. Mayor Kevin White didn’t even look at it. He put it down, Frank remembers, and asked one question.
CHIN: ‘How many votes do you have?’ So he said, ‘We have 3600 votes.’
And the deal was done.
For decades, Frank and his brother served as Chinatown’s fixers — the men to see if you wanted to build condos in the neighborhood or win a seat on City Council.
But politics are changing in Boston. The machine is fading and a new grassroots model is taking hold.
In Chinatown, that means more power for groups like the Chinese Progressive Association — supporting Roxbury activist John Barros for mayor.
Executive Director Lydia Lowe says her organization's approach marks a real break from Chin’s ward-boss, deliver-the-vote politics.
LOWE: That’s really how politics was done in Chinatown up until about 10 or 15 years ago. We like to think that we have a newer approach. We think that people need to be aware at the grassroots level of, you know, why vote for one candidate versus the other candidate.
The approach seems to be paying dividends. Voter turnout has been steadily rising in Chinatown over the past decade.
But a report out of UMass-Boston’s Institute for Asian-American Studies found the community punching below its weight in last fall’s presidential election.
Asian-Americans made up just six percent of the Boston electorate, even though they’re nine percent of the population.
Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute, says immigration plays a big role in the shortfall.
PAUL WATANABE: About 70 percent of the adult Asian-American population are foreign born. This has electoral and political consequences. Because the minimum requirements to vote in the city of Boston is you’ve got to be 18 years of age and you’ve got to be a citizen.
[AMBI FROM BOSTON VIETNAMESE AMERICAN COUNCIL MEETING (PEOPLE SPEAKING IN VIETNAMESE)]
It’s a Thursday night, and a small group of business leaders and activists gather above a Vietnamese grocery store on Dorchester Avenue — munching on banh mi sandwiches and catching up.
Tonight is the first official meeting of the Boston Vietnamese American Council, designed to build political clout in the community. And the challenges quickly become clear.
[A VIETNAMESE MAN'S VOICE LEADS IN, WITH TRANSLATION RUNNING ABOVE]
MALE VOICE TRANSLATION: I see many candidates running for mayor, but they’re all in English and I can’t read English. I don’t understand. I don’t know who is running for mayor and who is running for City Council. I’m lost.
But there is an undeniable energy here.
Tony Dang, and MBTA police officer and veteran of the war in Afghanistan, presides over the gathering with a soldier’s precision and an activist’s passion.
DANG: A couple months ago, we even discuss about how do we set a campaign to make it a record-breaking number of Vietnamese come out to vote.
He calls for the formation of a Vietnamese political action committee to host forums and endorse candidates. And he insists that the assembled educate themselves about the mayoral hopefuls.
Dang is personally supporting Marty Walsh, who represents a large swath of Dorchester in the state legislature. He says he’s working hard to turn out the vote.
DANG: I wish I started the campaign earlier. Me and my colleagues are just starting to be active — we’re learning, too. So hopefully, hopefully, we’ll come out in large numbers.
But even if the Asian-American vote doesn’t reach its full potential this year, analysts say it will be critical. In a tight, 12-way race for mayor, every ballot is precious
That has mayoral candidates fighting for support in Chinatown and Vietnamese Dorchester like they have for years in South Boston and West Roxbury.
And that may be the most important sign yet of a political arrival.
For 90.9 WBUR, I’m David Scharfenberg
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