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Paul McMorrow

Put a foot down on the gambling debate

By Paul McMorrow
February 5, 2011

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LAST SUMMER, House Speaker Robert DeLeo was blaming Governor Deval Patrick for the closure of the Wonderland dog track in Revere, and for layoffs at Suffolk Downs in East Boston. Now he’s saying slot parlors would never pull an Evergreen Solar and get up and walk off to China. At first glance, it seems that business on Beacon Hill is picking up right where it left off in July.

That’s the script DeLeo is working from. The speaker is riding high after jettisoning two top aides and promoting several legislators who strongly supported his casino and racino push last year. The shakeup has left DeLeo surrounded by hawks who backed the 11th-hour no-compromises confrontation that ultimately derailed gambling legislation last July.

The hawks’ advice — tell the governor he’ll have to accept slots at two racetracks, or he’ll get no casino bill at all — proved disastrous. It cost DeLeo political capital, while bolstering Patrick’s image as a tough, independent governor. The promotions indicate that DeLeo will make an even harder run at legalized gambling.

Restarting the gambling debate isn’t as easy as switching the rhetoric machine back on, though. That’s a problem for the speaker, and for the dozens of developers and other gambling businesses cheering him on.

The political climate has shifted drastically since DeLeo dared the governor to veto the House’s gambling bill. Those shifts make it far less likely that the speaker will enjoy victory this time around — even if he gets exactly what he wants.

Since DeLeo stared him down last summer, Patrick found his voice on the campaign trail, and has emerged as a stronger leader. Patrick is now firing department heads, seizing control of agencies, and pushing a reorganization of the state’s criminal justice system. He’s comfortable keeping score and meting out political punishment. He’s a very different politician than the one DeLeo tangled with last summer.

The House DeLeo runs, on the other hand, has been weakened by internal power struggles and public corruption stories. A federal grand jury is investigating the Legislature’s role in patronage at the Probation Department. The House’s former leader, Sal DiMasi, will soon stand trial on charges he sold his speakership. There’s a strong possibility DeLeo and other prominent House figures could get dragged into the proceedings. So it’s not an ideal time for the House to launch any kind of insurrection. But that’s especially true of expanded gambling.

Casinos hold lawmakers’ attention because they’re an easy way to pad state coffers without having to immediately account for economic costs. Slot machines, which the House is especially hot for, can be quickly set up in any old dump and programmed to spit out local aid funds. DeLeo has additional skin in the game. Two of the state’s four racetracks, Suffolk Downs and the now-shuttered Wonderland, sit in his district.

If DeLeo loses this latest gambling push, it will be a huge setback for a politician who’s already being tested by controversy. Winning might not be much more satisfying, though.

From the beginning of DeLeo’s tenure as speaker, gambling legalization has had the feel of an inside job. Gambling interests have spent $6.5 million lobbying on Beacon Hill over the past two years. Thanks to the recent convictions of former Senator Dianne Wilkerson and former Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner, the looming DiMasi kickback trial, and the Probation investigation, this isn’t the best time to be seen buying legislation.

Suffolk and Wonderland, which are essentially a single entity, and which have pumped a combined $3 million into gambling lobbying since 2005, are especially troublesome. They’re basically the speaker’s tracks. They’ve long been the odds-on favorites to win a casino license. If they’d won one last year, the deal would have looked wired and unseemly, but also not all that unexpected.

Things are different now. There’s an intense public focus on rooting out corruption and conflicts of interest. The speaker himself has hailed a new era of openness and transparency in state government. It’s worth asking whether he really wants to kick off this new era by creating instant millionaires in his own district — and whether he’s ready for the public backlash that would follow.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor of Commonwealth magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.