DeLeo’s shift helped pave way for casino deal

Dropping demand for slots at tracks lured Patrick back

BLUE-COLLAR VIEWPOINT House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo framed the casino deal as a victory, arguing that blue-collar workers would still benefit from casino jobs. BLUE-COLLAR VIEWPOINT
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo framed the casino deal as a victory, arguing that blue-collar workers would still benefit from casino jobs.
By Michael Levenson and Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / August 30, 2011

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A year ago, a dejected Robert A. DeLeo slumped in a paisley arm chair in the speaker’s office at the State House and said he was through compromising over the state’s casino gambling legislation.

Weeks of dueling press conferences, fruitless negotiations, and angry finger-pointing on Beacon Hill had ended just a day earlier, with nothing to show for it. Governor Deval Patrick’s refusal to let the state’s racetracks open slot machine parlors as part of a casino deal felt to the speaker like a personal slight - an abandonment of working-class constituents like DeLeo’s late father, a maitre d’ at Suffolk Downs. For two decades, DeLeo had fought for the interests of track workers.

“I just can’t turn my back on them for the sake of compromise,’’ he said that day.

But DeLeo did have a change of heart, one that proved to be the turning point in Massachusetts’ standoff over gambling legislation. Last week, he struck a deal that dropped his insistence that the state’s tracks be granted licenses to operate slot machines. He framed the deal as a victory, arguing that blue-collar workers would still benefit from casino jobs.

The speaker’s shift allowed him to break a deadlock with Senate President Therese Murray and the governor. Culminating months of closed-door negotiations, the three leaders announced last Tuesday a bill that would license three casinos and one slot parlor to be awarded to the highest bidder, with no preference for tracks.

DeLeo said he realized he needed to end his crusade for slots at the tracks after Patrick defied the Legislature last year and rejected a three-casino bill because it would have licensed two slot parlors at tracks. Patrick argued that automatically giving slot licenses to tracks amounted to a no-bid contract.

“One of the governor’s major issues revolved around slot facilities at the tracks,’’ DeLeo said, sitting in his office last week, much calmer a year after the first bill’s collapse. “And I felt the most important thing to do was to move beyond that, to get a piece of legislation done, that we couldn’t afford to wait another year. So I expressed my willingness to compromise to both him and the Senate president.’’

DeLeo was not the only player in the debate who changed course.

Patrick filed a casino bill soon after he came into office in 2007, only to see it defeated by DeLeo’s predecessor, Salvatore F. DiMasi. After DiMasi resigned, Patrick worked with DeLeo on the issue last year, but then seemed willing to let it die as a tough reelection loomed. At the time, Patrick was at a low point in the polls and needed to energize liberal backers who overwhelmingly opposed gambling.

After winning reelection in November, Patrick continued to downplay his enthusiasm for casinos. Murray, too, was cool on the issue, leaving DeLeo the only one to keep it alive.

On the House floor on Jan. 5, when he was reelected leader of the Democrat-dominated House, DeLeo announced that he was ready to fight again for gambling, but this time he used more conciliatory language.

Privately, he had already told at least one House official close to him that he still wanted slots at the tracks, but would not let that get in the way of a casino bill.

Patrick, while noncommittal, left the door open a crack: “It’s not at the top of my list, frankly,’’ he told reporters, minutes after DeLeo’s inaugural speech. “Unless we can come to terms on some of the big differences before it’s filed, it just sucks all the oxygen out of the place.’’

Pressure was mounting on DeLeo. In his district, which includes Suffolk Downs in East Boston and Wonderland in Revere, constituents were complaining that the suffering tracks had missed an opportunity to become a full-scale casino because of DeLeo’s insistence that they be granted slot licenses.

“People in the public who supported expanded gaming last year didn’t blame the governor for not getting the bill done,’’ said Senator Anthony Petruccelli, an East Boston Democrat who represents many of the same neighborhoods as DeLeo. “They blamed all of us and that is why I applaud’’ all three parties for reviving the bill.

Despite DeLeo’s frustration, the official close to him said the speaker viewed the issue in practical terms, not as a personal problem with Patrick.

“The speaker has always given the governor great respect, even when others wanted to take his head off,’’ the official said. “That, as much as anything, helped this deal go forward.’’

DeLeo agreed in the interview last week that tensions eased in the months after last year’s bruising battle.

“The dynamics changed,’’ he said. “Some people say we got close to the five-yard line last time. So this time we had more time to hear the governor’s concerns, my concerns, and the Senate president’s concerns. And that made for an easier flow.’’

In early June, DeLeo broke the news to the governor’s office: He would be willing to accept three casinos and one slot parlor to be competitively bid, the same deal Patrick had briefly offered just before negotiations collapsed a year earlier.

In an important concession for DeLeo, the bill maintained a provision that had been in last year, to transfer 9 percent of the state’s revenue from the casinos to boost purses at the state’s horse tracks.

The governor, who had talked more enthusiastically about gambling as spring turned to summer, signaled in July that he would sign that deal.

“If it helps get a deal, I will accept one slot parlor that is competitively bid anywhere in the Commonwealth,’’ the governor said. “First of all, it’s really important to the speaker, and the jobs and revenue are important to us as a Commonwealth.’’

Critics have questioned DeLeo’s focus on the horse-racing industry, a tiny segment of the economy in a state that is trying to nurture fields such as biotechnology and financial services.

But DeLeo sees expanded gambling as a lifeline for the horse-racing industry and believes the latest proposal will help it survive.

Last week, he grew impassioned as he recalled a visit he made to a Rehoboth horse farm in May. He had spoken to veterinarians, hay farmers, and breeders, people he hopes will benefit from the fatter purses guaranteed under the new bill.

“I spoke to a lady who has her horses in Rhode Island and she won’t come to Massachusetts because it’s not worth her horses to run here because of the small purses,’’ he said. “So if we can give those people a boost with some additional income, those horses will stay here in Massachusetts and the people at those tracks will keep those facilities going.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson. Noah Bierman can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman