If a casino comes to Boston, it will arrive with the full-throated support of Boston's mayor and East Boston's city counselor, representative, and senator. Our local leaders – including those who grew up here and know Eastie the best – risked everything they'd helped East Boston become and threw their support behind the statewide casino bill and the idea of expanded gambling at Suffolk Downs.
They didn't always support a casino here, though:
Anthony Petruccelli, State Senate
Sen. Anthony Petruccelli was an outspoken casino skeptic when the move to bring gambling to Suffolk Downs began to gain steam. “These neighborhoods are impacted by the international airport, three tunnels and a major highway,” he told the Boston Herald in July 2007. “How much more can we take?”
Well, just three years later, Petruccelli apparently thought these neighborhoods could take quite a bit more. In July 2010, he supported the initial House bill authorizing the construction of casinos throughout the state and would vote “yea” on every piece of gambling legislation from then on. He was one of a handful of Senators shepherding the legislation through the process.
“It took me a couple of years to get to the point where I support and prefer a resort casino at Suffolk Downs,” he told the Revere Journal in 2010. “As we look at it, the benefits outweigh the impacts.”
OK, so what changed?
Petruccelli explains his about-face on a casino at Suffolk Downs this way: the Senator ran into a guy from the neighborhood, someone Petruccelli grew up with, who had lost his job. It was this single interaction and his old friend's pleading with the Senator for work, Petruccelli said, that allowed him to ignore his strong initial concerns about casino impacts and help to pass the expanded gaming legislation – a bill he calls “a jobs bill.”
But “jobs” isn't a strong enough explanation for getting from “how much more can we take?” to full support of a casino in our neighborhood. One doesn't get from there to here without an outside influence or two. One of those influences might be Suffolk Downs owner Richard Fields. The Boston Globe reported in 2011 that Fields made a $6,000 donation to the senator's family foundation, after which Petruccelli “made sure bills before the Legislature have included a provision that would make local approval [for a casino] easier.”
According to the Globe, this donation far exceeded what Fields would have been allowed to give to Petruccelli's campaign under the state's campaign finance law. (for more on suspicious Richard Fields donations to elected officials, skip down to the section on Mayor Menino...except don't. The stuff to follow is really interesting.)
Carlo Basile, House of Representatives
Rep. Carlo Basile spoke even more forcefully against putting a casino at Suffolk Downs. During his campaign for a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, he was widely seen as the underdog, anti-casino candidate. Here's the tune he was singing during the campaign in 2007:
“We have a fight on our hands with officials who want to put another enormous burden on us with a quote-unquote world-class casino in our town. I will stand up to those who want to congest our streets more and thrust more upon us so that the state and city can reap more money and more taxes at our expense. Enough is enough – we have paid our fair share to the Commonwealth with three tunnels, an airport and a horse track within our borders. How much more can we take????
No one asked us if we wanted this – no one consulted the people of this neighborhood – look what happened in South Boston when they tried to jam the football stadium down their throats. We need to stand up and be heard. We need to fight to ensure that our opinions matter, and we have say in what happens in East Boston.
This is our town and we as a community will decide what is best for us!”
Hold onto your hats, because here's Basile, now the vice-chairman of the Committee on Financial Services, singing quite a different tune after the passage of the expanded gaming bill on Nov. 22, 2011: “This bill has been a long time in the making. I am very proud and excited about its passage as I believe it will spur much needed job growth and economic activity throughout the state.”
Explaining his position switcharoo, Basile also cites the jobs a casino would create. But like his counterpart in the Senate, Basile's stance on the casino appeared to shift out of political convenience. Back when Basile first spoke out against a casino, his stance would have sat very well with Speaker of the House Salvatore DiMasi, his “boss,” who was staunchly anti-casino. When DiMasi left office amid corruption charges, Robert DeLeo, an ardent casino supporter, took his place. Almost immediately, our then-junior representative's tune began to change on the subject of casinos.
But politics aside, what if his real motives are even more self-serving than that? Local political insiders know that Basile has for several years made jokes about one day leaving politics — to take a job at the casino. Not only could Basile earn more – probably significantly more – than his current annual salary of roughly $60,000, he'd receive the king's treatment for having helped pave the way for a casino at Suffolk Downs. That would be fantastic for Basile, of course, but terrible for the rest of us.
This is probably a good time to review one of the more disturbing aspects of the state's gambling legislation: the need for an amendment requiring some lawmakers to wait a period of time before taking a job with a casino. In the Senate, the amendment authorizing a “cooling off period” came only after one senator proposed an amendment requiring senators to wait five years after leaving office to work for a casino – and chaos nearly ensued. Here's the account from MassLive.com:
Soon after it began on Tuesday, the debate halted when one state senator argued for an amendment for a five-year "cooling off period" for former legislators before they work for a casino or applicant for a gambling license. Opponents became testy and Senate President Therese Murray gaveled the debate to a close. She ordered Democrats behind closed doors for a caucus that lasted an hour. When they emerged, senators quickly voted 36-1 for the one-year period for former lawmakers.
Hmm. Why would legislators get so heated about a proposal ensuring they would not personally benefit from an industry they helped usher in? Could it be that a handful of them actually planned to leave the public sector and snatch a comfortable position at one of the casinos? Alas, state lawmakers from both the House and the Senate must wait exactly one year after leaving office to go to work for a casino. After 12 months, though, it's anybody's game.
Salvatore LaMattina, City Council
In front of some community groups, City Councilor Sal LaMattina is cautious and understated about his feelings on a casino. He frequently tells them that he supports a casino at Suffolk Downs if it benefits the people of East Boston. At a recent Eagle Hill Civic Association meeting, he was pressed hard by members of No Eastie Casino about feeling unrepresented in local government because of their concerns about the proposed casino. In response, LaMattina put on his diplomatic, “wait-and-see” hat. According to Boston.com:
LaMattina said he, too, had questions about casino impacts, and he would work to ensure transparency. But many in East Boston are in desperate need of jobs the casino could bring, he said, and he will wait to make up his mind until he has more information.
The data isn't available yet, he said, but it will be put before the community in time for residents to make an informed choice in the voting booth.
“If this isn't right for East Boston, I'm saying no, too,” he said.
But LaMattina's true feelings – not just that he wants a casino in Boston, but specifically one in East Boston – have been on record for a while now. Last November, when asked by a Boston Herald reporter about Steve Wynn's just-released plans for a casino in Everett, LaMattina was bullish in his support for an Eastie casino.
“Do I welcome competition? Yeah, I welcome competition, but I want a casino in Boston, as does [Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino],” he said. “I still think Suffolk Downs is a perfect location, and I would have a lot of concern that a casino is going to Everett.”
And just two weeks ago, at his own fundraiser in East Boston, to 75 mostly pro-casino supporters – including Mayor Menino – he spoke glowingly about the benefits of a casino at Suffolk Downs.
“He emphasized that if the agreement is good he would support it,” said one who was in attendance. “People came away with the impression that he was favorable to the casino, unlike the Eagle Hill meeting.”
There you have it. Three out of three East Boston politicians either switching positions on the most important neighborhood development since airport expansion or (worse, perhaps) saying one thing to residents and another to the political establishment.
Then there's the mayor.
Thomas M. Menino, Mayor of Boston
Love him or hate him, Mayor Thomas M. Menino has been the most transformative, powerful and productive executive leader the City of Boston has ever seen.
And despite hailing from Hyde Park, Menino's Italian-American heritage has made him somewhat of a native son of East Boston, long dominated by multiple generations of residents and politicians with Italian blood. He frequents our restaurants. He's made completing East Boston's waterfront – including re-introducing water transport – a priority, and construction has, in fact, started up again after a long hiatus. Beyond that, though, the Mayor consistently wins elections in East Boston because his image has become that of a leader who works tirelessly for the neighborhood's working class people.
Menino is well aware of the well-documented negative effects of urban casinos, and still he backs one – despite the risk that it would turn back years of work reducing crime, building our economy, and expanding opportunities for all residents. So his support for a “resort-style casino” at Suffolk Downs would be a big head-scratcher, right? Well, maybe not that big.
Initially, the Mayor was quite skeptical of casinos and slot machines because of the negative impacts they typically bring. Then, in 2005, Suffolk Downs executives and owners flooded the Mayor's campaign coffers with $2,200 in donations. A few weeks later, Menino made a surprising endorsement of installing slot machines at the state's racetracks, including Suffolk Downs, to save the dying industry.
And remember Suffolk Downs owner Richard Fields?
The Fields Foundation, controlled by Suffolk owner Richard Fields, donated $10,000 to Menino's charity in 2008 and 2009, according the foundation's nonprofit tax return. Menino has confirmed in the past that a meeting with Fields one year earlier - just after Fields bought the racetrack - was a turning point in his transformation from tepid casino supporter to full-throated ambassador. (Source: The Boston Globe)
See how this works? Combine all those contributions and closed-door meetings with Menino's longtime friendship with Suffolk Downs principal owner Joseph O'Donnell, and one's confusion about the mayor's positions on casinos subsides considerably.
Shenanigans aside, here's the frustrating truth: Mayor Menino could shut casinos out of Boston tomorrow morning, if he wanted to. He has taken stands in the past against Walmart (for its benefits policy, as well as its impact on local businesses) and Chick-fil-A (for its CEO's opinion about gay marriage). He could do the same with the casino. Under the state casino law, mayors have enormous power to block proposals from moving forward, simply by refusing to negotiate with developers. Last year, we saw this in Holyoke, where Mayor Alex Morse reversed his position on building a casino in his city and abruptly ended negotiations with two casino companies.
Mayor Menino, on the other hand, is negotiating. Last year, in accordance with the 2011 gaming law, the Mayor appointed a Host Community Advisory Committee to represent the residents of Boston in negotiations with Caesars, but it too appears interested only in seeing that a casino is built. The five-person committee – which features just one resident of East Boston – lists on its website the driving philosophy behind its existence: “…that a resort casino entertainment destination, when properly regulated, can be an important economic driver in the region.”
But in dealing with the HCAC, community members report frustration that the committee has responded to few of their questions and requests for data. The suppression of information has become somewhat of a theme with all of our local leaders. On a number of occasions – both publicly and in writing -- residents and community groups have requested that an independent cost-benefit analysis be conducted to see what the impacts will be. Astoundingly, in a neighborhood where simple road improvements or construction variances require multiple studies of their impacts, requests for an in-depth report on a casino's impact have fallen on deaf ears.
Most disturbing is that those with knowledge of the process say Boston is close to finalizing its mitigation agreement with Suffolk Downs – if it hasn't already. Our politicians already know the framework of that agreement, while residents have yet to see any of the reports they've requested outlining the impacts a casino would have on our working-class, residential neighborhood. The next batch of information East Boston residents see will be an agreement between the city and Suffolk Downs showcasing the millions in mitigation dollars meant to offset the inevitable increase in crime, addiction, and traffic congestion.
We'll then be expected to vote yes or no on the construction of a casino with all of the good — and none of the bad — to inform our decision.
How Will This End?
This paints an admittedly bleak picture of our elected officials' blind support of a casino in Boston, but it can, of course, end differently than it started. Our mayor and local officials could choose to remove the shiny dollar signs from their eyes and demand that the voters know precisely how a casino will affect their neighborhood, rather than actively campaigning for a casino and blocking the free flow of information.
But at this point in the process, these men are unlikely to change.
As was true during the airport expansion of the 1960s, when mothers with baby carriages protested the destruction of our Olmstead-designed Wood Island Park, the residents of East Boston are on their own in standing up to a multinational casino company. Like those Maverick Mothers, “we're the last line of defense,” as lifelong resident Celeste Myers correctly put it at a recent neighborhood meeting. That's because all our elected officials chose long ago with whom they would stand in this fight.
Steve Holt is a writer in East Boston and volunteer with No Eastie Casino