Gambling industry targets presidential battleground states

February 13, 2015

LAS VEGAS — The casino industry, which for years preferred that the federal government stay out of its business, now wants to be part of the debate in choosing the next president of the United States.

The American Gaming Association announced plans Thursday to target presidential battleground states including Nevada, Iowa, Colorado, Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio in the upcoming election in a first-time unified campaign for political support.

That’s not to say the gambling industry has been anything but political before. The step into the mainstream, called “Gaming Votes,” represents a new chapter, though, for an industry that has mostly avoided large-scale, out-in-the-open campaigning beyond individual company endorsements, campaign donations and lobbying efforts.

“It’s a more public face of a lobbying effort,” said Eric Herzik, chair of the University of Nevada, Reno’s political science department. “Gaming is now so entrenched across the nation that they’re acting like any other industry.”

Along with urging candidates to support issues to benefit the industry, the plan will also involve encouraging the industry’s workers in those states to go to the polls.

Don’t expect an outright presidential endorsement, though.

“We provide the facts and we leave it up to others to make the decisions,” said Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the American Gaming Association.

And don’t expect the industry to agree on everything. They certainly haven’t agreed on whether or not online gambling should be allowed. The deep divide has put billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his Las Vegas Sands Corp. and casino developer Steve Wynn on one side advocating for an outright ban on online gambling. On the other side has been MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment, among others.

“Unanimity is not an achievable goal,” said Jim Murren, CEO of MGM Resorts and chairman of the American Gaming Association, of some issues and in any case where there’s a consortium of different people.

Because of that, the issue isn’t likely to be brought up by the American Gaming Association which hasn’t taken a stance one way or another.

Rather, Freeman said the industry will want a say on issues that aren’t entirely unique to their own. Immigration, tax reform, national security, health care, cyber-security and more are all issues affecting the industry as well as gambling-specific policies such as anti-money laundering efforts and illegal gambling.

At Thursday’s announcement, the group was already speaking the language of presidential campaigning by uttering one word more than others: jobs.

The industry group that represents the interests of massive corporate-owned and Wall Street-backed casinos, Native American tribes and gambling machine manufacturers touted the 1.7 million jobs in the industry that span more than 200 different types of careers beyond blackjack dealers and cocktail waitresses. A study from Oxford Economics commissioned by the group said 45 percent of the workforce is a minority and 48 percent are women.

Jobs are what the industry focused on in Massachusetts.

“Massachusetts is an example of what can happen when they put their resources behind something,” said Dave Guarino whose group Repeal the Casino Deal Committee was on the losing end of a ballot measure to bar gambling there. He said the industry battles have mostly been state by state, city by city, with heavy investments made by the individual casino operators.

Guarino said he sees the casinos “battling for their very existence at this point,” faced with more competition and thinner revenues as gambling has spread to more states.

“If you can simplify the message and make it about something people desperately want and need, you tend to be successful,” he said.

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Christopher Browne