Worth the gamble?

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  December 16, 2009

There are the obvious, high-profile shifts in the political environment — the tanking economy, the state budget in peril, and the threat of casinos or slot parlors in Massachusetts. But there are other differences, too.

Three years ago, the Narragansett Indians teamed up with gambling giant Harrah's on plans for a resort-style casino in West Warwick. And that pitch naturally alarmed executives at Twin River and Newport Grand, who bankrolled a plucky opposition to the ballot question in a bid to save their own businesses.

This time around, though, the talk is of expanding one or both of the slot parlors into full-scale casinos — turning the biggest opponents of casino gambling into the prime supporters and depriving the opposition of its main source of cash.

Twin River and Newport Grand would bring more than their money to the pro-casino fight, though. As San Bento notes, Rhode Islanders are comfortable with the gambling halls. And because those halls are not so far removed from full-scale casinos anyhow — Twin River's virtual blackjack tables are cards without the cards — they could make an argument for a seamless shift.

That gradualist appeal, combined with the implosion of the economy, has most observers predicting that voters, statewide, would approve casino gambling next fall. "I'm not a betting man," says Rick McAuliffe, a Smith Hill lobbyist and veteran political hand. "But if I were, I'd double down."

Still, the opposition should not be underestimated. It faced serious hurdles last time: a record $12 million campaign by Harrah's and a voting public that gambled in large numbers. And the "no" team, which drew on the advice of consultants Dennis and Doug Bailey — brothers known as the "casino killers" for their work in Maine, Massachusetts, and elsewhere — managed to win with a clever strategy that could work again.

Gambling, Dennis Bailey says, is popular. So moral suasion won't work. And the promise of jobs — however illusory — is powerful. "Don't get into an argument about jobs and money," he says, "you can't win that argument."

The trick, Bailey says, is to make the fight about something else. Traffic. Or the terms of the casino proposal. In 2006, opponents labeled the Narragansett-Harrah's plan a "no-bid" deal that involved "rewriting" the state constitution for the benefit of a Las Vegas company.

Of course, gambling proponents could be expected to learn from the last campaign. But don't count on it, Bailey says. "The casino guys tend to get pretty greedy when they write these bills," he says. "They say, 'Well, throw this in, throw that in.' It makes for a target-rich environment."

Bailey says the "bad deal" argument often rankles purists in the casino opposition — it implies that a "good deal" is possible, after all. And a poorly funded campaign next year, without a Bailey at the helm, could tend toward more satisfying — and less effective — arguments.

Reverend Eugene McKenna, president of Citizens Concerned About Casino Gambling, evinced a purist's aversion to the "bad deal" argument in a recent interview and seemed partial to a more traditional line of attack: casinos are not real economic development, he said.

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