Votes In a Moat


Regional/ Kansas City:


© Jack Cashill - 1999

The first guy I met at Harrah's in North Kansas City was holding a rubber chicken in his left arm and shaking hands with his right. He wore a pair of checkerboard shoes, a suit that might have been filched from Pee Wee Herman and, more to the point, an over-sized lapel button that read, "Vote Yes on Amendment 9, November 3."

This unlikely ambassador welcomed one and all to the hyper-mart of American democracy, the Missouri casino: a souped-up, sensory-overload of a forum in which the language of the debate is about as real as the aforementioned chicken.

"Can I register to vote here?" I asked.

"You bet your life," the greeter boasted reflexively, unaware perhaps of the subtle irony of his response. He directed me to a booth hard by the ticket window. Impossible to miss.

Few private enterprises in the history of America dedicated more energy to turning out the vote than the Missouri casino industry. The "Vote Yes on Amendment #9" message played everywhere at Harrah's: on the employees' lapels, on electronic billboards, on TV monitors, on beer cups, on the display monitors of the slot machines.

The casinos wanted the people of Missouri to legitimize the hybrid phenomenon known as "boats in moats." Specifically, Amendment 9 was designed to permit casinos to operate in "artificial spaces that include water" within 1000 feet of the main channel of either the Mississippi or the Missouri. Voter approval would reverse a 1997 State Supreme Court decision to the contrary.

As the casinos saw it, Amendment #9 would assure "that the rules everyone followed in good faith over the past six years are not changed after the fact because of an unforseen legal dispute." Or more simply, as the message boards read at Harrah's and elsewhere, a vote yes on #9 is a vote for "fairness and jobs."

And once again, the casinos got their way.

The Economy, Stupid

As to jobs, there can be little dispute. Missouri casinos employ more than 10,000 people, and the great majority of these employees were gladly prepared to vote in the affirmative. Certainly, every one I talked seemed to be genuinely pleased to be working at Harrah's and eager to prove it on election day.

Although difficult to calculate precisely, the casinos have also stimulated job growth in the larger economy through the $1.3 billion in new construction costs statewide and the millions more annually in service contracts with local vendors. To keep the good times rolling, vendors were posting signs produced and distributed by pro-casino forces urging their employees to vote affirmatively on behalf of their "casino clients."

The casinos have undoubtedly created work in the public sector as well. The city of North Kansas City, where Harrah's is located, has received more than $33 million in tax revenues from the casinos since 1994. That's roughly $xxxx per man, woman and child. The city has spent this money on everything from streetlights to sewers to swimming pools. Not every city has done this well--Kansas City received about $30 million in the same period--but all share in the state tax revenue that reached $184 million in fiscal 1998 alone.

Show Me The River

If the job issue was clear, the "fairness" issue was as murky as the Missouri. On the river, one learns, nothing is quite as it seems. To gamble in Missouri, patrons pass through a semiotic looking glass and enter a world whose language and imagery are as surreal as the casino's ubiquitous
electronic hum.

At Harrah's I bought a ticket for a "cruise" on a street-level, concrete-based "riverboat" devoid of windows and no more capable of floating than the Oak Park Mall. "Boarding" time was at 6 PM. I was late, but graciously the casino held departure for latecomers until 6:45. If I had missed that cruise, I would have had to wait until 7:00 to board. Currently, there is a $500 loss limit per cruise. Insiders in the Missouri legislature are hard at work to lift both the loss limit and the cruise time restrictions, such as they are.

At 7 PM, boarding began for the "North Star," the original part of the complex, the old river boat part that preceded the newer casino as well the attached hotel and multi-level parking garage. But this old boat has no windows either. A river view, I imagine, would only distract the patrons from the slot machines which provide about two-thirds of a casino's revenue and about 9/10 of its mind-numbing white noise.

I asked a young casino employee from the Sudan if the boat allowed for any access to the river. He referred me to a waitress from the Phillipines (Both count as historically "disadvantaged" in meeting minority "goals." ) She had worked at Harrah's for more than a year but wasn't certain.

"No one has ever asked me before."

She obligingly checked with management and assured me that, yes, it was possible go out on deck. She pointed to an unmarked metallic door, and I proceeded through. There were no amenities outside to be sure. But here, on the second level of the boat, I could actually see beyond the levee and marvel at the mighty Missouri as it rushed by. This was what I had voted for in 1992.

Beneath me, though, bubbled an ersatz Missouri, a shallow troth of water the size of a backyard swimming pool. Suspended above it, poised for some imaginary action, was a lifeboat. Strung out along the unpeopled, unmoving deck were life preservers. The raw reality of the Missouri made this Potemkin riverboat seem all the more preposterous, all the more a charade jerry-rigged for the winking eyes of a handful of regulators.

The rival Station Casino down river ventures even deeper into the unreal.
Indeed, rare is the riverboat that can boast of an 18 screen theater as Station does. And yet as confident as Station execs have been in disclaiming riverboat status to the public, they have kept up the front for regulators.
To sustain the illusion, they have created on the unseen side of the casino a half-hearted trompe d'oeil of a riverboat as lifeless and visually useless as the far side of the moon. No one goes back there, either through the casino or around it. No one sees it.

Were such illusions restricted to the boats themselves, the casinos would face little opposition in this election or any election. But evidence over the years suggests that they have extended this sleight of hand to the democratic process.

Missouri Compromised

Missourians for Fairness and Jobs, the casino industry's campaign front, claimed in its literature that Amedment 9 would merely ratify "the rules everyone followed in good faith over the past six years." This claim bears some scrutiny.

Proposition A, which the voters approved in 1992, was short and to the point. It made no allowance for what was to come:

Authorizes riverboat gambling excursions on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, regulated by the State Tourism Commission. Excursions may originate where locally approved by the voters. Five hundred dollars maximum loss limit per person per excursion. The proposal is intended to produce increased General Revenue.

The casino industry sold the "excursion" idea to the public through cheerful TV ads in which riverboats churned nostalgically up and down our rivers. Persuaded by the ads, and by the explicit limits they promised, Missouri voters approved the proposition. Within just five years of this campaign, however, marketers for the Station Casino would coldly reward the voters'
good faith with the in-your-face slogan, "This ain't no riverboat."

In 1994, to finesse the definition of riverboat, friends of the casino
industry rammed Senate Bill 740 through the legislature. Pro-casino
literature suggests that this bill "authorized riverboat gaming facilities in
artificial basins within 1,000 feet" of the rivers but, in fact, the bill
authorized nothing of the kind.

The language of Senate Bill 740 was precise. It restricted gambling to excursion boats or "floating facilities," the latter described as those "originally built as a boat, ferry, or barge." As to the basins, these were to be "devoted to the embarking of passengers on and the disembarking of passengers from a gambling excursion." There were no provision here for concrete boats. Quite the contrary.

In April of 1994, the casino industry apealed to the people of Missouri to amend the state constitution to allow "games of chance" on the riverboats. These were defined as games in which skill does not effect the player's "expected return." In two words or less, slot machines, the mother's milk of
the casino industry.

By a slim margin, Missouri voters rejected the amendment. The casinos redoubled their efforts and got the amendment back on the ballot for November. Much was at stake. "Had it been defeated," reported Casinews, the casino industry newsletter, "Wall Street would have lost any glimmer of confidence it has in the industry."

The two pro-Amendment 6 campaign committees raised nearly $12 million for the November election, 98.6% of it from 12 gambling enterprises and their subsidiary corporations, almost all of which came from outside the state. These two committees would spend 35 times more money than the anti-gambling forces.

This time around, the pro-casino foprces took no chances. In addition to $8 million spent on TV, they invested creatively in stimulating the democratic process. Figuring the return on investment would be highest where the income is lowest, they turned much of their attention to the inner cities.

Former Spokesperson for the Vote Yes Amendment 6 Committee, Nat Helms, has made a clean breast of his committee's involvement in trolling for votes. He tells of approaching a group of ministers associated with the Kansas City political organization, Freedom, Inc. At first, Helms claims, the ministers had been preaching the evils of gambling. Keen to the frailities of human nature, Helms and his cronies approached the ministers and asked what it would take to change the message.

"What about a million dollars?" Helms claims to have asked.

According to Helms, the conversion of the ministers was immediate. "Next week, gambling is good for Kansas City. Going to hire all these people on the boats. Yes sirree."

In the world of casino politics language is as fluid as it is in the casinos themselves. In one of his more poignant anecdotes, Helms tells of buying off the ministers with new suits which were, in turn, written off as "campaign
jackets" to satisfy federal and state reporting rules. According to Helms, the pro-casino forces in the inner cities bought and paid for 54,000 newly registered voters--a number they took great pains to conceal--and, in the process, corrupted an uncounted number of souls.

Helms and his colleagues also made a concerted effort to demonize the casino's conservative Christian opposition. To accomplish this, they took a page out of the Democrat's dirty trick book and concocted a wholly specious link between the opposition and some imagined Nazis in Louisiana. In the November 1994 election, this played into the larger Democratic strategy of vilifying conservatives as radical right wingers hell bent on theocracy. This strategy may not have worked elsewhere, but it did work among the Missouri 5th District's newly minted voters. Despite a Republican sweep nationwide, a record turnout in the 5th helped keeped this open congressional seat in Democratic hands.

Constitutional Amendment 6 passed by 130,806 votes and, according to Casinews, "saved the entire process of gaming expansion in America." Yet for all the money spent, neither this amendment nor any other has ever done what gambling proponents now claim, that is to authorize "boats in moats." Games of chance in the 1994 amendment were clearly restricted to "excursion gambling boats and floating facilities." The language was precise.

Missourians for Fairness and Jobs had the voters believing otherwise. "Now, because of a lawsuit by an anti-gaming politician," claimed their literature, "the voters are asked to again, as they did in 1994, pass legislation allowing these previously approved facilities to continue operations."

In fact, the voters previously approved no such thing. But no matter. In the post-modern semantics of the Clinton 90's, the phrase "floating facility" has even less meaning than the word "is." Indeed, the casinos bet more than a billion dollars they could debase the meaning of the phrase entirely and get away with it. And they succeeded.

Casino Rules

When the casinos talked of the "rules everyone has followed in good faith over the past six years," they neglected to mention one thing. Casino brass and supporters have rewritten these rules in their own language. And yes, in at least one sense, they are correct: "everyone" has followed them. Certainly Elbert Anderson who received a $250,000 kickback to follow the rules as scripted. Former House Speaker, Bob Griffin, helped craft the rules. He was strong-arming casino execs as soon as the idea of casino gambling floated down Jeff City way. Chief law enforcer Jay Nixon had accepted more than $70,000 from casino interests by 1994. If he did nothing illegal, his vigilance in enforcing the will of the people is surely suspect.

Former mayor Emanuel Cleaver did an excellent job separating church and state when he chose to follow casino rules. The casinos' $12 million annual tax dollop made a convert out of this Methodist minister even though his church continues to oppose gambling.

"Even for the Riverboats," The Star quoted the mayor as pontificating, "there ought to be an issue of justice."

The State Senate committee Senator Ronnie DePasco (D-KC) co-chairs helped redefine the rules when it recommended lifting loss limits and boarding restrictions. DePasco claimed to be unaware of the $1500 in campaign donations he received from casino execs last fall. Scott Burnett knew the rules very well. While he waited to take his seat in the Jackson County legislature, he was being paid to help the casinos pass Amendment 9. But hey, his all-but-unopposed victory was not be technically validated until November 3. Casino rules.

Reluctantly, I suspect, even U.S. Attorney Steven Hill learned to play by the rules. He dismayed his many supporters and outraged the Black community when he chose not to prosecute the two Hilton execs who "corruptly paid $250,000 to influence a public official." As part of a pre-trial diversion, this otherwise courageous crime-buster fined the Hilton Gaming Corp. and Hilton Kansas City Corp. $655,000 or about half the total cost of the bribe promised to Elbert Anderson and his partner, Michelle Lathan. Hill also manadated that Hilton develop an in-house training program to teach execs how to deal with bribe-seeking public officials. (Just say no?)

Hill argued that this diversion was necessary to save the job of thousands of Hilton employees. Word on the street had it that the Clinton White House squeezed him to pacify a major casino-friendly campaign donor. (This wouldn't be the first time the White House intervened in a local gambling issue. Ask Bruce Babbitt.) Both explanations have a common theme: commerce wins out over justice.

Cashing out

Missourians would never have knowingly voted for what we have ended up with: a string of unlovely casinos dumped in out-of-the-way sites, most without even a glimmer of river, operating in almost Nevada-style anarchy.

It didn't have to be this way. If you like gambling, imagine what Harrah's and The Station might have done for downtown Kansas City. If you don't like gambling, imagine Missouri without this whole unholy mess.

But remember, whether the game is roulette or craps or democracy, sooner or later the house always wins--at least when you play by casino rules.

© Jack Cashill - 1999

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