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Dan Payne

Patrick’s not-so-risky gamble

By Dan Payne
August 4, 2010

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AS OF this writing, the governor is in a showdown with the Legislature over gambling. If he plays his cards right, Gov. Patrick can win two ways. He can undercut Republican Charlie Baker’s best argument, and simultaneously shore up his liberal base.

Double wins. Gov. Patrick is standing up to the Legislature on an issue that has been hard fought, removing from Baker the argument that we need a Republican to keep the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate in check. In rejecting the Legislature’s bill, he wins the hearts of those in his liberal, reform-minded base who believe casinos and slot machines exploit the poor and foster gambling addiction.

Playing better. Many in his base have been dispirited by Patrick’s governorship — not just the drapes, the Cadillac, and the call to Bob Rubin at Citibank, but also the attempt to quietly slip a state senator into what had been a long unfilled state job and the busy turnstile of transportation chiefs. Lately, however, he has improved; he’s a better candidate than he’s been a governor. He does stagecraft better than statecraft, as George Will would put it. But like Michael Dukakis in his second term after losing the governorship, Patrick may finally be learning the game.

DeLeo is all in. This is a big roll of the dice for Deval. He’s risking bad relations with Speaker Robert DeLeo, who personally wants thousands of slot machines at two racetracks in his district. He lined up a small army of legislative sword carriers to stand literally behind him as he challenged the governor to sign the bill. Patrick’s reply: “I’m not going to be a party to no-bid contracts for track owners.’’ The House may not win this time but the governor’s long-term relationship with the speaker is dicey.

Charlie Baker is boxed in. Baker, who wants one casino and no slots, argues that Patrick’s resisting the Legislature makes him an “ineffective leader.’’ Which is it, Charlie? Should Deval cave in and be part of “one-party rule’’ on Beacon Hill? Or should he take on the Legislature and be called “ineffective’’?

Cahill is customarily confused. When he ran for treasurer in 2002, Tim Cahill said he didn’t want any form of gambling that might divert revenue from the state Lottery, which the treasurer runs. Once he got the job, he said he was for casinos but not slots. He was against privatizing the state Lottery before he was for it, two years later. Now he’s for casinos and slots. He recently said if the governor’s actions led to no casino or slots, he “owns this recession.’’ I thought the recession began in 2007; what a relief this must be to President W.

What about labor? Labor unions have lobbied hard for some form of legalized betting in the name of creating jobs. But the number of jobs required to run a slots parlor is small compared to the jobs in building and staffing a full-fledged casino. Destination casinos employ people on the gambling floor, in hotels, restaurants, night clubs, retail stores, spas, pools, golf courses, even in Venetian gondolas. Money that gets pumped into slots at racetracks is money not going to destination casinos. Slots are big business at casinos, where they account for an estimated 70 percent of casino revenue.

Baker is calling out unions who “control Beacon Hill,’’ claiming they force legislators to look to gambling revenue instead of making deep cuts in state spending. This stance is guaranteed to win Baker the votes of all those who hate labor unions; in other words, all those who are already voting for him.

Playing his hand well. Even if the Legislature overrides Patrick on this issue, which isn’t going to happen — Senate President Therese Murray wasn’t a fan of slots but accepted a compromise — the governor would get a destination casino with all the jobs, revenue, and upfront licensing fees that go with it.

There’s a saying in politics that you should never miss an opportunity to exploit a crisis. First it was the water main break. Now it’s casinos, and so far Patrick is playing his hand just right.

Dan Payne is a Boston-based media consultant who has worked for Democratic candidates around the country. He does political analysis for WBUR radio.

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