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Casino Series Part 1: Did Murray Desert Worcester in Casino Bill?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

 

As one of the earliest supporters of expanded gambling, Lt. Gov. Tim Murray has reaped a windfall in contributions from casino lobbyists, becoming one of the top recipients of campaign donations from those tied to the gaming industry.
But the lieutenant governor’s devotion to the cause, while it has helped fill his campaign coffers with thousands in gambling industry cash, has not necessarily paid off for his hometown.

Worcester has emerged as one of the biggest losers in the casino bill that finally cleared Beacon Hill last fall after years of debate, with a seemingly arcane legislative redrafting of the bill that all but ensures the state’s second largest city won’t get a revenue generating gambling palace of its own.

But while Worcester, where Murray used to serve as mayor before becoming lieutenant governor, has been cut out of the action, Murray has collected more than $21,000 in contributions from lobbyists for casino developers from across the state over the past five years, with big helpings from Boston’s Suffolk Downs to the east and from other casino developers to the west, including Mohegan Sun.

Would-be casino developers in Boston, Palmer and elsewhere may stand to gain from Worcester’s loss, with one less potentially formidable competitor to deal with.

The behind-the-scenes maneuvering on Beacon Hill that dealt Worcester a losing hand in the casino competition has not gone over well with Jim Knowlton, chairman of Worcester Republican City Committee. He contends Murray should have taken a leading – and vocal - role on the issue of whether the city should get a shot at a casino project.

"There were backroom deals – that is really what is going on,” Knowlton said. “It’s a lack of leadership,” Knowlton said. “He should have been more vocal.”

Big questions about Murray role

The question on some Worcester residents’ minds is: Where was Murray during the casino-gambling debate – and how did Worcester lose out on the casino-gambling sweepstakes? Worcester voters endorsed the idea of a casino in a nonbinding referendum in the fall of 2007, just a few months after Patrick put forth his proposal for three resort casinos across the state. The new casino bill divides Massachusetts into three casino zones, with a single license to be awarded in each area to a gambling developer.

When the Patrick Administration first proposed casino gambling back in 2007, Worcester was part of the western region stretching all the way out to the Berkshires. The hometown of the state’s lieutenant governor was in a prime position to become home to a casino, able to draw from Western Massachusetts and the Boston suburbs, as well as New Hampshire and Maine.

But when another, similar version of the bill finally cleared Beacon Hill in November, a subtle but crucial change had occurred: Worcester was no longer part of the western region, but was now lumped into the much more highly competitive eastern sector.
That meant any developer looking to build in Worcester would have to go up against competing proposals for potentially much more lucrative casinos in Boston and its suburbs.

“Worcester always seems to get the short end of the stick,” said Harry Tembenis, a city resident and IT worker who launched a campaign a few years ago to sell Worcester’s airport to a casino developer. “Worcester is too close for such a prize – the Boston politicians would never allow it.”

Murray declined to be interviewed for the story, with a spokeswoman insisting the lieutenant governor was not a major player in crafting casino gambling legislation. “In general, we want to see projects that win local approval, maximize job creation and economic development, and attract significant private investment,” Murray said in a statement, declining to address questions related to his role in the process.

Rep. Vincent Pedone shaking constituent's hand

For his part, state Rep. Vincent Pedone (D-Worcester) claimed in a recent interview that he was the one to insist Worcester be put into the eastern licensing zone - all in a bid to keep a casino out of the city. While he voted for the casino bill – and still hopes it will create jobs for Worcester residents - Pedone said he does not want a gambling complex in his backyard. Sticking Worcester in the eastern zone was a way to accomplish that, he contends. “I insisted that Worcester be part of the eastern zone,” he said. “It would be very difficult for a group to come into Worcester and try and bid against a Bob Kraft.”

The favor, such as it was, has not gone over with some city residents like Bill Randell, a small business owner who pushed unsuccessfully to have the city sell its money losing airport to the highest bidder. “It’s crazy,” he said. “We could have used something like that rather than the CSX rail yard,” said Randell, who runs an insurance agency in Worcester and the family liquor store. “People are not going to flock to Worcester to live near the CSX rail yard. A casino in Worcester makes more sense.”

Casino lobbyists ante up

Meanwhile, Murray’s sizeable take in contributions from casino lobbyists belies claims he was not a player on the gambling issue. The lieutenant governor’s popularity among gambling lobbyists appears only rivaled by House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray. All told, would-be casino developers have shelled out millions in salaries for high-paid Beacon Hill lobbyists over the past five years, lobbying and contributions records at the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s office show. The lobbyists, in turn, have blanketed the Legislature with hundreds of thousands in contributions to individual lawmakers, with the biggest slices going to those perceived to have the most power, a small group that includes Murray, the governor and various legislative leaders.

Murray’s take is more than double that of his boss, Gov. Deval Patrick, and right up there with the haul of the state’s two top legislative leaders as well. The lieutenant governor’s popularity among gambling interests comes after years of unabashed support not just for casinos, but also for racetrack slots. Lawmakers insist that contributions don’t buy votes. But most political observers note that money does open doors, creating a close relationship between those with political power and powerful business interests seeking favors, political watchdogs say.

Debated for years, casino gambling suddenly became a front-burner issue when Gov. Deval Patrick tried and failed to first pass casino legislation in the spring of 2008. After a number of failed attempts, Patrick and legislative leaders hammered out compromise legislation this fall that gave a green light to three casinos as well as a slot parlor the governor had previously opposed.

DeLeo has raised the most from casino developers looking to building in the state, hauling in more than $24,000, state campaign finance records show. But Lt. Gov. Murray is not far behind, at just over $21,000, with the senate president trailing at $19,125. By contrast, Patrick raised just $7,725 during the same period, with the governor often at odds with legislative leaders over the racetrack slot issue and even returning a couple casino lobbyist checks back in 2010 as he prepared for a tough reelection battle with Republican challenger Charles Baker.

Michael Cohen, a spokesman for Murray’s political fundraising committee, argued the contributions from lobbyists with casino clients were a drop in the bucket compared to the $9.9 million the lieutenant governor has raised since 2006. “There is no connection between campaign contributions and policy,” Cohen said. “It has no impact on how decisions are made.”

Unabashed supporter of expanded gambling

Still, in contrast to his boss, the lieutenant governor has not had the same qualms about expanded gambling, pledging support for racetrack slots back when he was first running for lieutenant governor back in 2006. While proposals for various forms of expanded gambling came and went on Beacon Hill, Murray remained a key voice in support, to the delight of union activists eager to save current racetrack jobs and expand their membership rolls with thousands of new casino workers.

Murray took in more than $1,500 from lobbyists for the union, one of the most vocal union supporters of casino gambling, often packing State House hearings on casino proposals. Murray has long been a hit with the union that represents racetrack workers at Suffolk Downs, who have long lobbied alongside the track’s investors for slots and now for a full-fledged casino. “Be assured I will be your advocate,” Murray back in 2006 told Suffolk Downs workers pushing for slot machines at the Boston track, according to a union write-up of the rally. “The rumors that (Republican candidate Kerry) Healey has spread that Deval Patrick is against slots are not true,” adding “he’s agreed to keep an open mind and is willing to listen.”Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause of Massachusetts, argued it’s hard to sort of the different interests at work when lobbyists contribute to campaigns, given most have multiple clients.

But, in general, the most powerful players in the legislative process get the most money, with Murray, given his well-known gubernatorial ambitions, potentially seen by some as an “heir apparent.” “They make all the decisions – they are the most powerful in the legislative process. That is where the money goes.” The lieutenant governor’s unflagging support of casinos and even racetrack slots over the years helped Murray to forge a statewide network of union supporters.

Lobbyists for Suffolk, in turn, have been most of Murray’s more faithful campaign contributors, dropping $3,200 into his coffers. Caesars Entertainment is drawing up plans for Suffolk Downs in Boston, allied with a group of politically connected local businessmen.
The lobbying firm the represents Mohegan Sun, as well as another firm the represents the owner of the Palmer tract the Connecticut gambling giant wants to build in, have also been generous. Lobbyists representing Mohegan and its local development partner chipped in more than $6,000 into Murray’s coffers.

Both Suffolk and Mohegan, in turn, may be the biggest beneficiaries of Worcester being taken out of the competition. If Worcester had been placed in the western zone, it would have been a far more attractive platform, able to draw from the wealthier eastern Massachusetts market while not having to compete directly with Suffolk. That would have threatened Mohegan’s Palmer proposal, ostensibly the front-runner for the western license, while detracting from the value of Suffolk’s casino as well.

Chuck Bunnell, chief of staff for the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, disputed the idea, arguing he is hearing of both casino and slot proposals being looked at for the Worcester area, though not for Worcester itself. “I can’t speak for what the legislature in Massachusetts was thinking,” he said of the decision to stick Worcester in the Eastern zone. “We believe that Palmer is the best site.”  Suffolk Downs offered a similar argument, arguing East Boston is the best location for a casino.

“Along with others seeking to increase jobs and growth in this business sector, we worked to educate the public about the economic and fiscal benefits of resort-style casinos and the figures released show that commitment,” said Bill Mulrow, the chairman of the board of Sterling Suffolk Racecourse, in a statement. Not so, contends Daniel Stack, a prominent local advocate for veterans.

Stack tried to interest Worcester officials in using city land along 146 for a casino that would help raise money for veterans’ causes, but got nowhere.

“We felt Worcester would have been an excellent location,” Stack said. “You had so many major highways that intersect there. You drive right past Worcester to get to Foxwoods.”


 

 

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