Gambling showdown in the cards

  • Article by: BRAD SCHRADE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 6, 2011 - 9:20 AM

Casino and slot-machine proposals have gained traction for 2011.

New casino proposals for downtown Minneapolis and the Iron Range. A new governor who has openly supported a state-run casino in the Twin Cities. And a new, well-organized push to add slot machines in bars, restaurants and horse tracks.

The historic Republican takeover of the Legislature and the urgent search for solutions to the state's $5 billion budget deficit are galvanizing gambling advocates like rarely before at the Capitol. Lawmakers and observers on both sides of the contentious issue say it's a pivotal moment in the long battle over who can host and profit from Minnesota's multibillion-dollar gambling industry.

Gone are long-held assumptions that a DFL-controlled Legislature and its deep-pocketed political supporters in the Indian casino world will automatically be able to block any competitive threat to tribal casinos across the state.

"I believe if something is going to happen, it has to be this year," said state Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, a sponsor of numerous gambling bills over the years. "The tribes have done a great job helping their people with the facilities that they have. But there needs to be some competition. There's nothing that says they deserve to have a monopoly on gambling in the state of Minnesota."

Tribal groups and their political allies are gearing up for a high-stakes showdown this spring.

Citizens Against Gambling Expansion (CAGE), which includes GOP heavyweights Jack Meeks and state party chairman Tony Sutton, is organizing an opposition campaign with a new website and petition drive. It's also utilizing the Minnesota Republican Party's apparatus to keep anti-gambling pressure on lawmakers. Promoting a political platform that opposes more gambling, Meeks sent an e-mail to local GOP leaders last month urging them to "hold our elected leaders accountable."

"I think the threat is greater this year than it has been in the past just because of the unknowns, so many new members and [new] leadership," Meeks said in an interview last week. "If it's ever going to break, this is the year it's going to break.''

In a sign of how ugly the battle may become, Sutton on Friday accused pro-gambling forces of smearing him.

Randy Sampson, CEO of the Canterbury Park racetrack in Shakopee, told the Star Tribune that Sutton's wife, Bridget, approached him through a mutual friend late last year after the GOP swept into power in St. Paul. According to Sampson, Bridget Sutton wanted to know if Sampson would be interested in hiring her husband as a consultant to help in its quest to put slot machines at the track.

Sampson said the pitch came from businessman Bill Lethert, who Tony Sutton has described as a friend. The idea never went anywhere, Sampson said.

"I told [Lethert] I have some concerns," Sampson said. "The fact he's a Republican chairman -- I'm not sure how that would work. The fact that he'd been with CAGE, how would he be able to effectively represent us?"

Both Sutton and his wife denied pursuing work with Canterbury or asking Lethert to speak on their behalf.

"It's a baldfaced lie," Sutton said. "These guys are so desperate. This is about a lot of money for them. So they'll say whatever they've got to say."

Bridget Sutton, also a board member with CAGE, said she met with Lethert after the election. But she said Lethert brought up the idea of having a meeting with his pro-gaming friends. She said she reminded Lethert of her husband's long-standing opposition to the expansion of gambling.

"I said, 'But if you want to talk with him, it's up to you,''' she said, referring to her husband. "That's the last I heard of it."

Lethert declined to comment for this story.

'Some tough decisions'

Gambling has been a source of controversy in Minnesota politics for decades.

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