Over the past several weeks as I’ve watched the ads concerning the north Jersey casino initiative, something has struck me as odd: The anti-expansion casino folks have dominated the airwaves, explaining that the initiative to expand casinos into north Jersey enables Trenton politicians an enormous amount of latitude in terms of which casinos will operate and where they will be located. But where are the proponents? Where is Jeff Gural, who proposed a new Hard Rock Meadowlands casino with great fanfare (and lots of political leaders by his side)? Where is Paul Fireman, who proposed a $4.6 billion casino in Jersey City?
My gut tells me that this equation is bizarrely out of whack. Who proposes a $4.6 million mega-development but then doesn’t bother fighting for it?
Well, the answer may be one of the more cynical stories of a very cynical age.
Back in 2011, Gov. Chris Christie was on the record opposing increased casino competition with Atlantic City, and signed a five-year moratorium on in-state competition to Atlantic City’s casinos in order to give the city the opportunity to recover from the recession. In 2012, Christie described the conversation of the possibility of a casino in northern New Jersey as “a waste of time.”
But it seems that two people, Fireman and Gural, disagreed.
In 2013, they start spreading cash around Trenton like a Goldman Sachs executive seeking a gubernatorial nomination. Each contributed more than $100,000 to Trenton politicians—both Democrats and Republicans—nearly all of whom would go on to support the casino expansion measure. Fireman, his wife, and son each contributed the maximum contribution of $3800, for a total of $11,400 to Chris Christie’s gubernatorial reelection campaign. But that was just to be a down payment. Paul Fireman has built enough golf courses to know that you don’t pay the final draw until the work is complete.
In the meantime in 2013, Hard Rock signed a long-term agreement with Meadowlands Racetrack that positioned it to develop a casino at the Secaucus site.
But the governor—then at the apex of his power—still opposed casino expansion. Nonetheless, the casino developers saw an in. “My guess is (Hard Rock) wants to have their foot in the door if Christie changes his mind,” Jeff Compton, publisher of CDC Gaming Reports said back in 2013, when Hard Rock signed the deal.
In 2014, Fireman proposed a $4.6 billion casino in Jersey City.
One must ask: Didn’t these guys get that The Governor—then the most powerful governor in the country—was opposed to casino expansion? Chris Christie doesn’t change his mind.
But then on May 27, 2015, something changed. Christie officially flip-flopped. Christie told NJ101.5 that he “certainly would be publicly supportive of getting this question [of casino expansion] done as quickly as we could so that we can proceed to expand if that’s the will of the people… I think given the competition around us, it would be the right thing to do.”
Now why would the Governor change his mind?
Well, the cynics would say that every politician has his price. Christie’s turned out to be a cool $1 million.
On June 25, 2015, Paul Fireman, through his Winecup-Gamble Ranch in Nevada gave $1 million to Chris Christie’s super PAC, which supported his failed 2016 presidential bid.
The cynic in me believes that Fireman and Gural painted Trenton green with their contributions, and didn’t think for a moment that their scheme would be rejected by voters. They are men accustomed to buying whatever they want.
But the state legislators were cagey. They crafted the legislation so that there was wiggle room: After all, neither the developers nor the locations are specified in the initiative, leaving open the possibility that another developer—perhaps another generous developer? —could walk away with approval.
If the casino expansion referendum were to pass in November, the state would be granting licenses to two casino developers. State election law precludes casino owners from contributing to state election campaigns. State pay to play laws say that “A [campaign] contribution made prior to the award of a contract may disqualify a business entity from receiving a contract, and the business entity is prohibited from making certain contributions during the term of a contract.” It would seem that, if state officials follow the law, it would be illegal to award either Gural or Fireman casino licenses.
The cynic in me recognizes that given how Gov. Christie, these developers, and the state legislators who support them have behaved, those regulations might be circumvented.
But the optimist in me recognizes that New Jerseyans who will vote on this measure Nov. 8 recognize this for the back room deal that it is, and won’t give them the chance.
Brigid Callahan Harrison is professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, where she teaches courses in American government. A frequent commentator on state and national politics, she is the author of five books on American politics. Like her on Facebook at Brigid Callahan Harrison. Follow her on Twitter @BriCalHar.