Casino battle royale

By IAN DONNIS  |  October 11, 2006

Although casino opponents lack Harrah’s corporate firepower, they hope to make up for it in their familiarity with Rhode Island. They also have an arguably less difficult task, since it is generally considered easier to encourage voters to oppose a referendum question than to vote in support of it.

Timothy Costa, 28, a former policy director for Carcieri, has long been active in Republican politics in the state, and he is helping to chart strategy as the head of the anti-casino group Save Our State.

Working from SOS’s sparsely furnished campaign headquarter in a Warwick office park near I-95, Costa makes repeated reference to the possibility of Harrah’s being bought out, as part of his side’s efforts to raise doubts about the proposed casino.

Mike Doyle, an experienced political hand and the chairman of the Providence-based RDW Group, the PR agency for Save Our State, is also playing a significant role in both strategy and message for the opposition, but more about him later.

Carcieri is one of the most high-profile casino opponents, and he has made regular use of his bully pulpit to speak against the proposal, although he is not said to be actively involved in the opposition on a day-to-day basis.

Representatives of the two gambling parlors helping to bankroll Save Our State, Diane Hurley, the CEO of Newport Grand, and Cynthia Stern, a former RDW exec who moved to Lincoln Park, have seats at the table.

Others involved in strategy, outreach, and advocacy for the casino opposition include Dale Venturini, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Hospitality and Tourism Association; J.L. “Lynn” Singleton, president of the Providence Performing Arts Center; John Holmes, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, Gary Sasse, executive director of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, East Providence Mayor Joseph Larisa, the architect of several successful past court challenges to the casino; Paul J. Choquette Jr., the president of Gilbane Inc.; Hasbro chairman Alan Hassenfeld; and Mike McMahon, a former director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation.


With a spending campaign expected to top $12 million, Harrah’s has employed a multi-faceted advertising campaign to build support for Question One, starting with a series of feel-good advertisements about Harrah’s.

One subsequent commercial — in which various individuals repeat, “It’s not just that . . ” before segueing into a different speaker — outlines a recitation of the variety of benefits cited by casino proponents. House Minority Leader Robert Watson (R-East Greenwich), a casino opponent, turned this phrase on its head in describing, during a recent appearance on RI-PBS’s A Lively Experiment, a litany of concerns about the casino.

Another commercial, alluded to earlier and featuring Thomas, suggests that the Narragansetts have suffered a series of broken promises.

Still another spot seeks to rebut one of the prime arguments of opponents – that a constitutional amendment is the wrong way to establish a casino. Citing periodic changes to the state Constitution, this commercial contends that placing the casino in the Constitution makes more secure a pledge that profits will go toward property tax relief.

Roy Behr, a former partner in Los Angeles-based GMMB and a longtime consultant to Democratic politicians in California, has produced the commercials, with input from the casino proponents in Rhode Island. “He’ll say what he thinks and I’ll give him the Rhode Island flavor, like putting on the Cajun seasoning,” says Thomas.

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