ALBANY – It’s not often that moderate to conservative-leaning voters in Western New York, Central New York and parts of the Adirondacks agree with people living in Manhattan.
But those were the areas that Tuesday voted against the greatest expansion of gambling in state history.
The opponents’ numbers paled, however, compared with Democratic and Republican support from the other boroughs of New York City, Long Island and several upstate areas that provided the votes – 1.5 million voted for and 1.1 million against – for a healthy win for Proposition One.
Interesting geographic disparity aside, the vote is a political victory for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who authored the gambling plan.
“It means economic activity, it means jobs, it means business. It means getting the economy running," Cuomo said at a celebration event Wednesday in the Catskills county of Sullivan, where 76 percent of voters said yes to Proposition One.
Still, the numbers paint a curious picture: 22 counties upstate voted against what was billed as an upstate jobs measure, while voters in New York City and Long Island can get the credit for making the difference in its passage. In Erie County, the vote was 84,300 against and 76,400 for the proposition.
As the governor toured part of upstate Wednesday, casino companies and the state wasted no time getting to work on the next process: selecting developers to run the first four casino projects in upstate.
The next steps include appointing a five-member panel that will run the casino site selection process with the help, possibly, of outside lawyers, accountants and real estate experts. That panel cannot be seated until Jan. 1.
“The competition is going to be pretty serious," said Michael Treanor, an investor with the Nevele casino hotel proposal in the Ulster County area of the Catskills.
But casino opponents say political professionals tampered with the process, and that Cuomo and his allies overstated the benefits while ignoring the downsides of more crime and gambling addictions and developers looking for tax breaks to build gambling halls.
They say the governor did all he could to tip the balance in his favor, from ensuring the vote happened in an off-election year with low turnout to helping craft the positive-sounding language on the ballots to lure more yes votes.
The governor also eliminated potential opponents, such as racetrack-based casinos and Indian tribes, including the Seneca Nation of Indians, by agreeing not to put casinos near theirs.
He also kept on the sidelines some opponents who questioned the logic of engaging in a battle that would produce more gambling. That’s because of Cuomo’s insertion of language permitting four new casinos with electronic slot-like devices but not table games if the referendum failed.
“It has not been a fair fight," said Stephen Shafer, chairman of the Coalition Against Gambling in New York. “We were up against good old-fashioned, Machiavellian politics.”
If Cuomo has one group to thank, it is the state’s major labor unions, including those representing teachers, firefighters, carpenters and hotel workers. They gave more than $1.5 million to the lobbying effort to get the proposition approved. But beyond that, they provided the political arsenal to get voters to the polls, especially important with low turnout in an off-election year.
The state AFL-CIO directed a massive education and get-out-the-vote effort aimed at members of unions across New York. The pro-casino outreach included 700,000 pieces of mail sent to union households, 300 phone calls to voters, door-to-door canvassing, literature handouts at workplaces and stationing people at 300 “high volume" polling sites on Tuesday in New York City, where polls showed support for Proposition One.
Casino companies also played a role in getting the measure passed by deep-pocket donations to NY Jobs Now to help fund its advertising and mailing campaign.
“We attribute (the win) to the voters recognizing the social and economic benefits of having these destination resort casinos," said Scott Butera, president and CEO of Foxwoods Resort and Casino, the Connecticut casino owned by the Mashantucket Pequot tribe that has proposed a $500 million casino for the Catskills. The tribe donated $100,000 to NY Jobs Now.
Some critics have been concerned that new competition elsewhere in the state would hurt the three casinos that the Seneca Nation of Indians owns.
“We’re pretty good right here. We have a nice exclusivity area," Barry Snyder Sr., president of the Seneca Nation, said in dismissing such concerns. Casinos in Connecticut and New Jersey should be worried, but not the Senecas, he said.
The Senecas own land in the Catskills from a bid a decade ago to locate a casino there. Asked if the Senecas might be interested in a casino deal there, Snyder said, “I think everything is on the table … We’ll take a look at what our options are, and whether it’s advantageous to get involved."