Just in time, an old name surfaces to lead anti-casino battle
By Michael Lewis
“How do I…” my friend started to ask.
I knew what was coming. I’ve heard it over and over, every day.
But I didn’t have an answer — until now.
The question: “How do I help stop casinos?”
Only three backers I’ve met aren’t on casino payrolls. But the silent majority who fear casinos had no rallying point — until now. Stick around and I’ll give you one.
We need a rally to halt a casino blitzkrieg. The Associated Press cites more than 100 registered lobbyists toiling in Tallahassee to ram through full-scale casinos at five pari-mutuel sites and add three massive casinos.
Make no mistake: we can stop a casino machine handing out big money. We did so in 1994, when respected Miami Beach Mayor Seymour Gelber headed a drive that halted a Las Vegas-led war to fill Florida with casinos.
“Casinos fit best in communities that are having trouble surviving — the suckers. We’re not like that,” the 77-year-old retired judge said then.
“This is not a little, small incursion. This is an invasion,” he said of big-shot outsiders trying to ram casinos down our throats. “They haven’t the slightest idea of what this means to a community in terms of the people who live there.”
Casinos, he correctly noted, would wipe out the community’s character by making us a “gambling factory,” destroying an effort by South Florida to improve its image.
Today is déjà vu — except that in 17 years we not only bettered an image, we improved reality with new arts, cultural and sports hubs, a crime rate so far down that we never even mention it, and growing international investments that are lifting our economy.
South Florida is better, richer — and, therefore, an even bigger sucker for massive casinos to fleece. The only change is that now the Vegas brigands are joined by pirates from Asia. (Did I mention that I don’t much favor their advances?)
But the climate did change in one respect: leadership. Mr. Gelber was followed in office by Neisen Kasdin, now working for Genting to develop the world’s largest casino where the Miami Herald, Omni Center and more sit. He’s one of many who traded white hats for a roll of the dice.
And last week one casino operator met with current Miami Beach Mayor Matti Herrera Bower and City Manager Jorge Gonzalez about making the city’s convention center the core of a casino complex,
The void of community leaders gave casinos a huge head start in their attack on South Florida’s lifestyle. Nobody bucked empty gambling promises that, like shifting sands, changed daily.
Until last week, that is.
The statewide No Casinos group named a South Florida leader who fits the mold of Seymour Gelber — his son Dan Gelber, a respected former state senator and practicing attorney.
Dan Gelber can cross party lines to lead a battle that he admits “makes strange bedfellows” who share only the conviction that massive casinos would be a death sentence for our lifestyle, “a major expansion that will redefine the communities and the state itself.”
Why are outsiders seeking casinos today, he asks rhetorically. “They’re doing it because they believe Floridians are desperate enough to go with this horrible idea.”
He’d already detected one strategy of legislators pushing casinos, predicting they’d jettison some aims in order to lure in pari-mutuel gambling interests by promising them the same tax breaks as the big boys. “That’s why they’re not screaming. They just want parity.”
Sure enough, the next day Rep. Erik Fresen said he and Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff planned to amend their casino bills so five South Florida pari-mutuels would get not only the much lower taxes of outsiders — cut from 35% to 10% — but all the same table games.
That alteration, my friends, would add to three new giant operations five more full-scale casinos for Miami-Dade and Broward, with no limit on how much they could grow. One of the five, in fact, had already announced plans to add another site.
As Seymour Gelber predicted in 1994, “It’s just the beginning. They’ll come back for more and more and more.”
That became reality as casinos speciously claimed this year that voter approval of racino slot machines created a loophole covering future gambling expansions of any sort, so voters get no say.
“Ridiculous,” says Dan Gelber: if casino bills pass, a local vote would be sought in court. Fear of court action, he says, would freeze casino development: “uncertainty is good.”
“We have the angels on our side,” Dan Gelber says.
Unfortunately, it will take more than angels to defeat outsiders of a stripe we don’t want who would force on us what we neither want nor can handle. It will take big money.
In 1994 casinos spent $16 million. Sy Gelber and his team had a shade over $1 million but won at the polls by 24%.
But this time voters are legislators, not you and I. Tens of millions spent to sway legislative votes could make casinos winners.
When I spoke Thursday to Dan Gelber he noted, “I’m four days into this” — years behind the casinos.
He’s an unpaid volunteer with a law practice. Casinos pay hundreds of gun hands.
The No Casinos team in Miami has no office, no staff — other than the aforementioned angels, who also have other duties — and no money.
Dan Gelber aims to gather information, get people involved and craft an action plan. He’s reviewing resumes for organizers and aims for a paid staff. He thinks he can raise money, bring in the community and organize these who haven’t yet been bought by the casinos.
For those of you who’ve been asking how you can help, he’s welcoming volunteers and donors to join him at Dan@DanGelber.com.
He’s also starting to question the motivation of the casino bills: “I’m beginning to wonder if they’re for real” or just a way to skin gambling operators for donations to 2012 legislative campaigns and give lobbyists jobs.
Wouldn’t that be sweet irony: someone actually fleecing the casinos?
I wouldn’t count on that, nor should you. Those guys are big. They play tough. They’re well armed. They’ve loaded the dice against us. We need to help.
But at least we have the answer to “How can I…?”
This should relieve the chamber member who called saying “I’m sick to my stomach” that Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce leaders at their alleged information meeting last week stacked the deck, with six of seven speakers supporting casinos.
Someone finally stepped up to the plate to run the effort to save our lifestyle. As Dan Gelber quotes his father last time, “Why would you invite pirates into your community?”