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Suffolk Downs enlists Chicopee mayor

Backs casinos in new mailing

Email|Print| Text size + By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / January 4, 2008

Boston's Suffolk Downs has reached nearly 100 miles to Western Massachusetts in its efforts to drum up support for casinos in the state, enlisting the mayor of Chicopee to help demonstrate that support for legalized gambling runs far and wide.

Michael D. Bissonnette, mayor of the city of nearly 55,000, is featured on a pamphlet supporting casinos that was paid for by Suffolk Downs. Suffolk mailed the fliers to 22,000 residences from Pittsfield to Somerville.

Bissonnette said in an interview that some residents have been confused by the approach.

"Some people thought it was a Christmas card, or thought, 'Is this guy angling for state office?' " Bissonnette said.

But Bissonnette, who says that a casino would help drive his city's economy, immediately signed on to help drum up support among local officials staring at dismal budget projections.

"I wanted to raise the level of understanding about what revenue might be generated and what it might do to cities and towns," Bissonnette said.

"This is part of an overall strategy to bring as many disparate voices to the discussion as possible and say these are the upsides to casino gaming. If my voice can add something to the dialogue, I'm happy to do it."

For months, Bissonnette has been urging casino developers to come to Chicopee, a city that is home to Westover Air Reserve Base and one of the country's largest annual Polish celebrations. In November, Chicopee residents narrowly approved a ballot question asking whether they favor casino gambling in their city.

The city owns 110 acres near the Massachusetts Turnpike, adjacent to the Chicopee Country Club and state parkland. Several developers have toured the site, including Donald Trump's lobbyist, Dennis Murphy.

The mailing list included city and town officials across the state, business leaders and chambers of commerce, and delegates to the last state Democratic convention.

Charlie Baker III, a Democratic political consultant who helped establish the Boston-based public relations firm the Dewey Square Group, approached Bissonnette several weeks ago.

Baker is also a longtime lawyer for Suffolk Downs and has helped lead their bid for a casino license, hoping the Legislature approves the proposal by Governor Deval Patrick to allow up to three casinos in Massachusetts. Baker was part of Suffolk's four-member team that presented their casino plans to Patrick administration officials in July.

Other members of the politically connected firm include Michael Whouley, who was the national field director for Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, and Charles M. Campion, who was a special assistant to Vice President Walter Mondale.

The pamphlet's cover shows Chicopee City Hall, with the text, "Resort-style casinos: For our Towns. For our cities. For a better Massachusetts." Inside photos show a construction worker laying cement, a teacher helping a student, and a bridge.

Bissonnette makes a case in the mailing that local budgets need the infusion of revenue that could come through casinos. He writes that $500 million would be generated in new tax revenue, though the governor's estimates have been around $400 million and several outside groups have suggested it would be lower.

"We need more jobs, and we need more revenues," he writes. "Resort-style casinos are not the whole solution, but without question they are part of it."

In return, he has received 10 cards and phone calls - nine in favor, one against - from people living in Dorchester, Somerville, Centerville, and Pittsfield.

Chip Tuttle, the chief operating officer at Suffolk Downs, said the track paid for the mailing to raise support for the governor's proposal.

The track also paid for a 50,000-piece mailing that went out statewide Nov. 27 and was signed by Robert J. Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO.

"There are lots of mayors and city officials who, looking at the revenue crunch for their next budget cycles, are very supportive of this," Tuttle said.

Suffolk Downs has been preparing for nearly a year for the casino debate, with the hope of winning a lucrative license to transform its ailing East Boston track into a gambling and entertainment mecca.

Suffolk officials hope to build a coalition that would advocate for the governor's proposal, answering opponents who have held antigambling forums across the state and built a network that will attempt to quash the legislation. Church leaders, local political groups, preservationists, and the League of Women Voters have formed an umbrella group called Casino Free Mass and are enlisting volunteers to write letters to individual lawmakers, place bumper stickers on vehicles, and get to the State House for demonstrations.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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