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Character sketch | Dante Ramos

Scott Harshbarger

(Associated Press)
By Dante Ramos
September 11, 2011

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ONE BY one, the state’s loudest voices against casinos have fallen quiet. Former legislative stalwarts Daniel Bosley and Susan Tucker have left office. Former House Speaker Sal DiMasi is headed for prison. So as a gambling bill cooked up by Governor Patrick, current Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Senate President Therese Murray lumbers toward passage, the leadership of the opposition has fallen to someone who last held elected office 12 years ago - former Attorney General Scott Harshbarger.

Harshbarger, 69, frames the recent push on gambling as an attempt to ram through a far-reaching change in the state’s finances, economy, and political culture without a spirited public debate. Harshbarger often has had strained relations with his fellow Democratic politicians. Since losing his bid for governor in 1998, he’s served as head of the good-government group Common Cause and, as a private attorney, carved out a specialty in corporate and nonprofit governance. After a series of scandals, the activist group ACORN tapped him to assess its operations. More recently, he’s advised the state judiciary on reforms in the wake of the Probation Department patronage scandal. All of this is what one might expect from someone long cast as a “process liberal’’ - or from a minister’s son.

Harshbarger insists his stance against gambling isn’t a moral issue. Unlike other key casino foes - such as former John Hancock Financial Services chief David D’Alessandro, who’s written movingly about his gambling-addicted father - Harshbarger cites no personal brushes with the dark side of the industry. Instead, he traces his position back to a discussion in the early 1990s with Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore, who observed, Harshbarger recalls, that gambling had changed communities and taken over that state’s legislative agenda.

Harshbarger maintains that his goal now is for opponents to be heard out fully. Still, it’s clear that more public meetings won’t cure his objection. He laments the influx of money from gambling lobbyists and declares, “In Massachusetts we have so many strong economic engines . . . that we don’t need to go this route.’’

Despite $50,000 or so from D’Alessandro, though, Harshbarger says donors haven’t exactly been rushing in to help stop casinos. Like other gambling opponents, he sounds uncertain whether it’s best to try to thwart a bill blessed by Beacon Hill’s “big three’’ - or to focus on tougher regulation of the casino industry when it arrives. Gambling opponents like the idea of putting someone like Harshbarger on the oversight board, and he’s clearly open to the idea. In the meantime, he holds out hope that voters will grow more skeptical as they learn more about the gambling bill. “All we can do on the course we’re on, which may or may not be futile,’’ he says, “is keep trying to educate the public.’’

Twitter: @danteramos