Former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger has been providing free legal advice to those working to repeal the state's casino law. The State Supreme Judicial Court ruled on Tuesday that a ballot question to repeal the law can be placed on the statewide ballot on election day in November. Harshbarger says he was excited and satisfied by the courts decision to allow the vote.
Scott Harshbarger: It was a resounding victory on every possible legal front by the Supreme Court of Massachusetts. Emphasizing it, underlying that the people’s right to vote trumps any property right, claimed or implied, under the attorney general’s ruling that denied certification. So it was a real vindication for this grassroots movement that has developed over the past year or two, but also just the beginning of a very significant battle for the fall election.
Brian Shields: Do you think the other races in the fall election will have any impact on this ballot question, the race for governor? Any of the other races?
Harshbarger: I think that possibly depends on the candidates, but I do think it will have a significant effect in the terms of the energy and the passion of those that are opposed to casinos as a policy measure. It will definitely get them to the polls. And on the other side, given that there is so much money to be made by casino owners, the huge profits that they will benefit from, they’re probably going to spend a huge amount of money to keep and earn those profits. So, they will be generating energy. I think it will have a major effect, and I believe and am somewhat surprised frankly that only a couple of the candidates are staking this out as a major policy issues in terms of supporting the citizen effort. But I think it’s going to be a major issue. And to some extent interestingly that’s sort of sad, that in Massachusetts we’re debating the public policy of having casinos. Whatever your view on that, it’s at best a short term economic development, instead of talking about education, health care, life sciences, biotech, all the other major opportunities we in Massachusetts offer to people particularly in tough urban areas.
Shields: A recent poll showed Massachusetts voters are just about evenly split; there’s a slight advantage to those who say they will vote no on this repeal. Why do you think the issue of casinos is still somewhat divisive in the state even though the law passed just a few years back?
Harshbarger: I think it’s been a rather traumatic shift. From a great deal of support to now, if anything, evenly divided. Much of that is because the more you know about the facts about casinos and their impact on communities, whatever may be the benefits, there are guaranteed costs. Whether it’s costs of cannibalizing local business, substance abuse, addiction, increased crime, potential for corruption. All those costs are predictable. And the more people see and know about it, and think “it’s going to be in my backyard,” the more they question it. And frankly, this is one of those issues which the more you know the less likely you are to support it. Particularly in a state like Massachusetts, that really offers so many other alternatives and has so many other examples. Like the city of Somerville that has totally revitalized itself with a long-term economic development urban plan. The failure to do that in every city is the real issue. Also, the decisions being made now by the gambling commission are provoking a great deal of controversy. And maybe most importantly, town by town around the state and particularly in Western Massachusetts, the only community that has voted for casinos in Springfield, every other community from Palmer, Monson, West Springfield, Longmeadow, they’ve all voted against casinos because they see that this is going to be in their community and their town. They’re going to see the costs and not the benefits. We think the more that people know, the less likely it is that they support casinos, but we shall see.
Shields: Will you be out on the campaign trail, so to speak, working for this repeal effort to win?
Harshbarger: Well, I have been opposed to casinos as a form of economic development and on behalf of consumer protection and public protection since I was attorney general, 20 years ago, and I’m joined in that by former Governor Michael Dukakis in opposing this. So I will certainly do I all can to support this effort to oppose casinos, but the real energy here is coming from our citizen grassroots leaders. The group of citizens in western Massachusetts, in the Berkshires, in Palmer, Monson, that have mobilized, along with the people in East Boston, and Revere, and all the communities that have rejected casinos on the voting. Those are the real heroes here, they’re the real leaders. This is going to win or lose based on the energy that we the people can mount. This is a David versus Goliath struggle, but the citizen movement here is really very impressive. I intend to do everything I can to support it. But, I think in the long run it’s going to be these citizen leaders that are emerging as these strong proponents, opposing this flawed public policy. Ensuring that we at least take a second look before we rush in to casinos as a potential economic development tool. Look around the Northeast; I know New York is going through the same thing. It is amazing to me, to watch casinos come in, make all these promises, and never fulfill them. And yet in New York, New Jersey, we just double down. If they fail, we give them more. It’s the only industry I know where the more they fail the more the state buys in because the state gets revenue and the owners make money, but communities lose. And that’s what’s going on now in Massachusetts, and that’s why I think we’ll win.
Shields: But won’t you be outspent? Won’t the repeal effort be largely outspent by the Goliath you mentioned?
Harshbarger: Sure we will. And that’s been true all the way through this. As John Ribeiro, as the leader of the statewide movement from East Boston points out, they were outspent a hundred to one in East Boston in the vote there about a casino, and yet the citizen group won overwhelmingly. And that’s been true in MetroWest, it’s been true in almost every community. The ones that won won quickly. Springfield was a very early vote. But even there, in the middle of July a year ago, they only won by eight points. In Everett it won because it moved very quickly. But everywhere else, the fact is that the more people know about this, the more that they see that this is really influenced by money, and self-interest, and the insiders, and the owners of casinos who will profit. The more they will realize this is corporate America versus the people. I think the people are going to rebel at that. And frankly, send a message. Much of this is about sending a message, that we want the right to vote, we want to decide these public policy issues, not have them decided in Beacon Hill, behind closed doors, by lobbyists and special interests, as opposed to the people having the vote. Win or lose, it will be healthy for democracy in Massachusetts.