It started with a traffic jam.
As a young boy growing up in East Boston, John Ribiero took the bus to and from school, spending at least two hours in transit every day. When he first heard of a resort casino plan at Suffolk Downs, Ribiero’s first concern was the congestion the resort would inevitably cause in surrounding neighborhoods.
Now, he is chairman of Repeal the Casino Deal (RTCD), a group of citizens who have banded together to stop casinos from coming to Massachusetts at all. The group, once largely disregarded as a few anti-gambling extremists opposed to the development, has recently garnered attention for their efforts amid growing support to repeal the law.
As he looked into other potential problems the casino could cause, Ribiero found that a greater problem lies in something much bigger than traffic jams. “It is not an economic development initiative-instead, it creates a black hole,” Ribiero said. RTCD considers poor air quality, strain on infrastructure, and property devaluation as some of the biggest problems a casino can create for a surrounding community.
In 2011, Governor Deval Patrick signed a bill into law legalizing gambling in the state, giving the gaming commission the ability to license as many as three resort casinos and one slot machine parlor. RTCD came into existence that same year, yet some members of the group have been working together for far longer: RTCD is an extension of another group formed over seven years ago, when Patrick first entered office and a Massachusetts casino became a real possibility.
RTCD has assembled a team of practiced constitutional lawyers who will lead the campaign in a case before the Supreme Judicial Court, the highest court in the state. Thomas O. Bean and H. Reed Witherby, both Boston lawyers who have worked in the state attorney general’s office, have extensive past experience in arguing appellate cases. Both lawyers took the case at discounted rates. “This case is not about whether casinos are good public policy,” Bean said in an interview with The Boston Globe. “It’s about whether the people will get to vote.”
As it stands now, residents of the state of Massachusetts do not have the ability to vote on a casino. The residents of specific communities in which casinos seek to build must approve the plan. In the past year, casino opponents have ended several projects in Milford, East Boston, Palmer, and West Springfield.
The casinos currently applying for state licenses are taking the repeal effort seriously. Five of the six applicants for gambling licenses in the state filed a legal motion on Monday, interjecting themselves in the case to prevent the question from appearing on the November ballot. According to a survey taken in mid-January by The MassInc Polling Group, only 53 percent of voters support bringing casinos to Massachusetts. This poll significantly differs from earlier surveys, which cited over 60 percent voter approval last year, as well as in 2009 and 2010.
“We want to protect our own communities,” Ribiero said. What makes RTCD different from other advocacy groups, however, is its focus not on one community, but on the state as a whole. “Everyone likes to say, ‘Hey, I don’t want it [a casino] in my neighborhood, but it can go in somebody else’s,'” Ribiero said. He predicts that once casinos “get a foot in the door” in the state, the licenses will only expand, and he fears that there will one day be a casino “close to everybody.”
Contrary to popular belief, casino opponents are not necessarily anti-gambling. Ribiero himself wishes he was better at poker: “That’s a game of skill,” he said. He visited a Mohegan Sun casino, the very company bidding to build on the Revere property at Suffolk Downs, to see comedian Ray Romano in 2000-he and his wife enjoyed the trip so much they ended up staying overnight. “I mean, who wouldn’t like to go hang out in a casino?” he said.
But on the subject of living near one, Ribiero said it doesn’t take much for people to find something they don’t like. “I’m a conservative, but this is a non-partisan issue,” he said. “It brings people together across the aisle.”
RTCD has collected over 75,000 signatures for the repeal movement-nearly 6,000 more than the required amount for an appeal to go to trial. Presently, RTCD is in the process of filing all the necessary paperwork to argue the case in front of the Supreme Judicial Court. “I’m not a lawyer, so I’ll leave it at paperwork,” Ribiero said.
The gambling commission is expected to award one slot parlor license in late February and two casino licenses in May. The repeal case is expected to be argued in May and decided by late June.