Sen. Charles E. Schumer says he harbors reservations over the proposal for a gambling casino in downtown Buffalo, citing the lack of consensus on the issue and fears that poor people could be disadvantaged.
In fact, he told WBFO radio Thursday that the thought of a casino in Buffalo "causes knots in my stomach."
Though he supports the idea of a casino in a tourist destination like Niagara Falls, the Brooklyn Democrat said he must study the proposal further and gauge public opinion before committing to a Buffalo casino.
"I'm not ready to say yes," he told The Buffalo News late Thursday. "I want to let people have a chance to speak on this."
Schumer joins several other state figures, such as Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, and Comptroller H. Carl McCall, who are asking at least for further study of the idea launched by an agreement between Gov. George E. Pataki and the Seneca Nation of Indians.
Meanwhile, a wide representation of Buffalo-area religious leaders today released a statement opposing the agreement, contending the casinos would have a negative impact on the poor and most-vulnerable segments of the population.
The Rev. Stanford Bratton, co-director of the Network of Religious Communities, said the statement was approved by the network's Public Issues Committee. It calls on the Assembly to disapprove the compact and urges the State Senate to rescind its approval.
Schumer's comments amplified the debate that took place in Buffalo on Thursday as the leaders of both houses of the State Legislature took pot shots at each other over the gambling issue during separate appearances.
Silver accused the governor and Senate of rushing into law a vague agreement that fails to address Indian land claims. State Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, R-Brunswick, defended the preliminary pact his house has already approved.
Bruno also met with Seneca Nation President Cyrus M. Schindler at Buffalo Niagara International Airport in a "get-acquainted" session. Bruno said the Seneca leaders expressed optimism that the deal would be approved by their constituents.
"They are very optimistic the tribe will ratify the agreement," Bruno said, adding that Schindler informed him the nation has scheduled four public hearings to be held before the Seneca referendum on Aug. 7.
But some of Thursday's most important developments in the gambling saga occurred with Schumer's declaration that he is unsure of the proposal negotiated by the governor and the Senecas. Though the pact must win final approval by both the Senecas and the Assembly, his input is considered important because of the role the federal Department of the Interior must play in approving a final deal.
Schumer said he can accept the gambling argument only if it generates an economic boost, and he conceded that downtown Buffalo needs a major catalyst. But he also believes a casino must draw new people to the area and not prey upon poor citizens of its host city.
In addition, he said, there should be some type of consensus among local residents on a question of such magnitude.
"I'm not sure what the people of Buffalo think," he said. "Some are very much for it. But I think this needs a little bit of 'fermentation.' I don't think there is a need for me to rush to judgment."
The senator said both Pataki and Mayor Anthony M. Masiello have lobbied him for support, acknowledging that their opinion carries influence with him.
"But I want to let the people have a chance, too," he said, adding that he encountered a variety of opinions during a Monday visit to Buffalo.
Silver, meanwhile, spoke with reporters while breaking ground for a new Lake Erie facility to be called Buffalo Beach, formerly Gallagher Beach. He said that while he supports casino gambling in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, Pataki's deal does nothing to protect Grand Island residents from Indian land claims "and guarantees not a nickel of revenue" to Buffalo.
Last week, he said, Pataki called him "in the middle of the night" to say he had negotiated a deal with the Senecas to permit casinos in Western New York.
"That would have been a perfect place" to resolve the Senecas' land claims on Grand Island, the speaker said.
He said the memorandum of understanding requires Buffalo to provide police and fire protection for a casino but provides no guaranteed revenue.
"I have voted for casino gambling in Buffalo and Niagara Falls on many occasions," Silver said. But he said the latest proposal lacks "a definition of what happens and doesn't happen."
The Senate, he said, voted it through "while the ink was still wet" and "without any concern for the people of Buffalo."
Pataki has proposed "not one (economic) initiative in Western New York" but now that he faces re-election "is panicked" into a job-creation deal, Silver charged.
Rather than being in Albany ironing out a casino agreement, Pataki was in Buffalo for a rally "so everyone could say, 'Hail Pataki,' " he said.
Masiello, who appeared with Silver at a groundbreaking ceremony for Buffalo Beach, said he has told Silver and Pataki that he supports casino gambling in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, and "I fully expect to participate in negotiations" over locations and a revenue stream for the city.
Michael McKeon, a Pataki spokesman, said in response that Silver "will do and say anything to stand in the way of economic development for Western New York, is a master of delay" and is the reason no state budget for 2001-2002 has yet been adopted.
And Bruno, attending a Republican fund-raiser in the University at Buffalo's Jacobs Mangement Center, said "naysayers" like Silver and Schumer are behind the times. The reality of casino development in Ontario, he said, has forced the state to tackle the question for Western New York and its depressed economy.