Gambling opponents are emerging from months of relative inactivity and mobilizing against Governor Deval Patrick’s casino plan, hoping to capitalize on a tepid effort by the governor to secure its passage.
Church leaders, local political groups, preservationists, and the League of Women Voters are sponsoring antigambling forums across the state and actively building a network that will attempt to persuade legislators to vote against casinos. They are enlisting volunteers to write letters to individual lawmakers, place bumper stickers on vehicles, and swarm the State House for demonstrations. The groups are presenting themselves as underdogs, fighting against wealthy casino developers such as Donald Trump and Sheldon Adelson and their teams of politically connected lobbyists.
„This is like David and Goliath,“ said the Rev. Jack Johnson, executive director of the Council of Churches, which this week started rallying clergy at meetings in Worcester and North Andover. „This is going to be a significant part of the agenda for the ’08 Legislature, and it’s nowhere near a done deal.“
Gambling foes six weeks ago formed an umbrella group called Casino Free Mass, raising their stature while Patrick continues to maintain a low profile on the casino proposal. Even though legalizing gambling is a centerpiece initiative of his administration, the governor has held no major public events since unveiling his proposal in September. He has delivered a handful of speeches before business groups, according to his administration, but he may not even attend a Legislative hearing on the issue Dec. 18.
Church groups have history on their side. They have used their moral authority and political muscle to persuade legislators to defeat gambling expansions in Massachusetts in recent years. But they were divided over how to proceed in the months leading up to Patrick’s announcement in September that he would seek casinos.
Now, with little momentum building behind the governor’s effort, Beacon Hill leaders remaining divided, and the issue heading toward a 2008 legislative battle, they have become more politically active and joined forces with outside groups.
The Council of Churches has posted on its website sample sermons and inserts for church bulletins, along with a photo of three young children, smiling as they display anticasino signs.
The League of Women Voters, which is distributing form letters for members to send to their legislators, has enlisted a former Ledyard, Conn., resident to speak at forums about how her community changed for the worse after the Foxwoods Resort and Casino opened. A network of online bloggers, with names like „Truth to Power“ and „Casino Facts,“ has also started airing its grievances.
The Massachusetts Restaurant Association – which is concerned that the resort-style casinos Patrick has proposed would strip business from existing establishments – is planning a letter-writing campaign. Democratic town committees have passed local resolutions against the proposal in Sudbury and Amherst.
Organized opposition is forming in Monson, a Western Massachusetts community of 9,000 located near possible casino locations in Palmer and Warren. Residents are meeting monthly to strategize, with plans to create lawn signs and T-shirts. On Feb. 9, they have planned an evening fund-raiser, where donors giving $ 25 each can „indulge in wine, cheese, and chocolate in an elegant historic setting“
Notably quiet are Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley and Catholic bishops from around the state. They issued one statement against casino gambling in September but have said nothing publicly since. The church has joined Casino Free Mass, but has no current plans to fight the proposal on its own, according to Edward F. Saunders Jr., executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the church’s public policy arm.
While the far-flung network of anticasino groups works outside the State House, casino developers have hired teams of powerful lobbyists to work the halls of the State House and city and town halls, looking for support.
Unions also like the casino idea. Robert J. Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, sent a letter last week to each legislator expressing „strong support“ for the governor’s casino proposal. UNITE HERE, which represents hotel and food service workers, took out radio ads in September supporting the proposal.
The governor’s legislation, which was filed in October, would license one resort casino in Western Massachusetts, Southeastern Massachusetts, and metropolitan Boston. Patrick says each casino could generate USD 200 million to USD 300 million in licensing fees every 10 years. He is also counting on another USD 400 million a year for state coffers, gambling revenues that he would use for property tax relief and roads and bridges.
Although the proposal fares well in public opinion polls and the broad concept is supported by Senate President Therese Murray, it faces a stiff fight in the House, where Speaker Salvatore DiMasi has expressed skepticism and legislators in the past have voted against gambling expansions.
Last year, the House voted 100 to 55 against a proposal that would have legalized slot machines at the state’s four racetracks. In 2003, the last time the House voted on casinos, the measure failed, 95 to 59. Still in office are 70 legislators who voted against casinos and 46 who voted in favor, with 43 legislators who are new or did not vote on the previous legislation who could prove to be pivotal.
„There’s already demonstrated opposition,“ said Representative Ruth Balser, a Newton Democrat and a chief opponent of the proposal.
Representative Brian Wallace, a South Boston Democrat who supports the governor’s proposal and is trying to rally support in the House, said backers have about 40 of the 81 votes they need, with a vast middle ground.
„The problem we have right now is everyone knows where the speaker is, so people aren’t going to jump up and risk“ making him angry, Wallace said. „This could come to a vote in March or April. Most people won’t make their votes known until then.“
One key, Wallace says, will be a more active public push by Patrick. „He’s got to sell this to people who are on the fence or who voted no last time,“ Wallace said.
The strongest statement Patrick has made recently on the issue came in an off-the-cuff remark to a Springfield television reporter.
„If we had to take the votes right now, we’d win,“ said Patrick in raw footage posted last month on YouTube.com.
The first hearing for gambling proponents is Dec. 18.