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Analysis: Casino Decisions, Decisions; Casino Politics, Politics…

John Adams Courthouse in Boston, seat of the Mass. Supreme Judicial Court (via wikipedia)

A week after its ruling, the impact of the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision to allow the casino referendum on the ballot appears easier to measure. While the entire concept of repeal had long been a factor in the gubernatorial and attorney general races, it existed largely in the theoretical. It was rallying cry for the candidates opposed to casinos and an effective one, but it was not quite tangible. Last Tuesday’s ruling changed that.

The ruling provided convenient proof that campaigns have advanced to the point where the events of the world and the commonwealth are now prompting responses from candidates regularly. That the casino decision would is a no-brainer, but as it was followed by US Supreme Court cases that affected Massachusetts directly, including the buffer zone, contraceptive coverage and the state’s union rules for personal care attendants. These prompted a flood of press releases and tweets from candidates.

Unlike every event upon which every candidate can opine, the casino decision is unique. It can and may alter the dynamics of races, although the degree to which is hard to know. The candidates’ actions, regardless of their position may matter more.

Don Berwick (via Facebook/Berwick campaign)

In the gubernatorial race, the surviving Democrats for the governor, Don Berwick, former head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, Attorney General Martha Coakley and Treasuer Steve Grossman, all differ on the subject. Berwick is wholeheartedly for repeal, embracing the view held by many progressives that the predations of the gaming industry outweigh the rewards. Coakley and Grossman similarly oppose repeal, but the former has never been much more than lukewarm on casinos. Grossman, while not red hot for casinos either, has expressed stronger support for expanded gaming and its economic potential

Of course Coakley is more directly involved with the decision itself as it was her decision that forced the repeal backers to seek redress in court. As Attorney General, she rejected the ballot question as unconstitutional. However, the SJC reversed her and put the question on the ballot. Despite some chatter, the decision itself and Coakley’s role is unlikely to move public opinion of her much.

AG Marthay Coakley (via Facebook/Coakley campaign)

Most voters will not see it as a sign of her performance as Attorney General, which remains her biggest asset. That is partly because the media is focusing on phrases from the decision, and not the content. In particular, the decision notes Coakley approved the dog racing referendum in 2008, which involved substantially similar law and facts as the casino referendum this year.

The argument against Coakley’s actions, however, is not likely to be told very well, unless and until Berwick or his allies, can concisely make that point to voters. That message is not likely to come from Grossman, who is said to be storing his campaign warchest for a late summer ad blitz. As a supporter of casinos, it would be very difficult, though not impossible, to attack Coakley’s handling of the issue without aggravating anti-casino folks who are also skeptical of Berwick’s viability.

Treasurer Steve Grossman (via Facebook/Grossman campaign)

Coakley has softened the blow, too. Her unenthusiastic approach to casinos may ease tensions between herself and the party’s left. Indeed, it fits well into what is the safest and smartest position for pro-casino candidates going into the primary: state your position and declare your respect for the people’s wishes. Speaker Robert DeLeo’s approach, for gubernatorial candidates anyway, would be unwise.

As for Republican Charlie Baker, it would appear he never had a good choice after the casino decision. He has apparently announced his opposition to repeal and that creates problems with both the left, center and right. While he is expected to win the Republican primary on a walk and he has expressed skepticism about the casino law, he will still need arch-conservatives to vote. Many on the right of the state GOP, including Baker’s primary challenger Mark Fisher, support the repeal effort. Baker’s position could give them another reason to stay home in November.

Charlie Baker (via Facebook/non-campaign)

Meanwhile, no matter who the Democratic nominee for governor is, being pro-casino and facing a general election electorate limits whatever Baker could do with the issue. Pro-casino factions in the Democratic party will not risk a Republican governorship by not backing Berwick if he is the nominee. The anti-casino left will not abandon Grossman if he is the nominee. Finally, both groups will not abandon Coakely if she is the nominee and Baker cannot credibly attack Coakley’s handling of the issue while being against repeal himself.

It is important to note, however, that the casino referendum is in November and primaries in September, too. This could accentuate its impact on November, while blunting its affect in September, unless third party groups drop money on candidates for their positions on the matter.

Maura Healey (via Facebook/Healey campaign)

The attorney general’s race likewise is affected by the decision. Maura Healey, a former Deputy AG, took on the anti-casino cause in the spring and it accentuated her momentum that had been building up to that point. Warren Tolman, a former state senator, supports the casino legislation, which his work with the gaming industry notwithstanding, is unsurprising given his strong ties to organized labor (his brother is the President of the AFL-CIO). Both Healey and Tolman are competing in the Democratic primary.*

It makes for a striking contrast, but how it all plays out is hard to decipher. Tolman, perhaps hoping to deflect the politics of the referendum until after his primary, said he signed the petition to put the referendum on the ballot and supported it going to the people.

Warren Tolman (via Facebook/Tolman campaign)

Healey, meanwhile, was able to in essence take a victory lap on the issue. Again not appearing on the same ballot affords her the advantage of the issue without the full impact of the voters or pro-casino factions’ response. More importantly, it adds buzz and name recognition to her campaign, which, for both her and Tolman, will be key components for either’s victory at the primary.

Falling further down the ballot, the SJC’s ruling affects the politics less and less. It doesn’t play a large role in the lieutenant governor’s race, although Steve Kerrigan came out rather strongly against repeal. In the Treasurer’s race all of the Dems oppose expanded gaming anyway. In the general election, the LT is on the same ballot line as the governor and neither the AG nor Treasurer’s races seem competitive.

Casinos are unlikely to have much of an impact in the primaries for open races in Greater Springfield. Either all of the candidates are at least sympathetic to casinos or the districts are too evenly balanced that a strong position will alienate too much of the electorate.

The eventual Democratic nominee in the 2nd Hampden and Hampshire Senate district, whether Patrick Leahy or Christopher Hopewell, might be able to leverage anti-casino sentiment against incumbent Republican Don Humason, who voted for the bill as a member of the House.

Rep. Michael Finn (via Facebook/Finn campaign)

There is one down ballot race worthy eyeing for the casino impact. Rep Michael Finn, one of the few Democratic incumbent facing a challenge this year, could face an interesting race. His opponent, Nathan Bech, who made an unsuccessful bid to unseat John Olver in 2008, led the anti-casino charge against West Springfield’s proposed Hard Rock casino, which forms the heart of Finn’s Sixth Hampden House district.

A couple of months after the casino referendum went down in flames in Westside, Mayor Gregory Neffinger, who spearheaded the casino process there, lost reelection badly to Edward Sullivan. Neffinger’s brief reign was generally viewed as controversial, but the casino had an impact.

Nathan Bech (via Facebook/Bech campaign)

That does not necessarily translate into a vulnerability for Finn, however. While Finn voted for the casino law, he did not figure prominently in Hard Rock’s campaign according to press accounts. What attention he has receive on casinos appear to be appeals to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission that it ensure MGM Springfield’s impact on traffic does not harm West Springfield. Moreover, Bech may prove a bit too radical as a rep candidate regardless of the ultimate casino arithmetic.

Many have questioned why the casino question has attracted so much attention while the politicians in the legislatures seemingly escaped scrutiny by anti-casino forces. In some districts, particularly very liberal ones where reps flipped positions, that is a very good question. It does appear to be happening in the statewide races, but not to the degree that it could. At the moment all of the energy appears to be on the side of repeal, but that may not redound universally to anti-casino candidates. In any event, the SJC’s decision ensure the conversation goes on, rippling out into the state’s elections.

*Western Mass Politics & Insight Editor-in-Chief Matt Szafranski has organized events for Maura Healey and served as a convention whip at the state Democratic convention in June.

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