Crazy Casino Politics
Both Gov. Walker and Mary Burke have mishandled the Kenosha Casino issue.
Just a few days before Christmas, state Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch announced that Governor Scott Walker may wait until after the November 2014 election to decide whether he will approve the proposed Kenosha Casino. The governor needs all this time, Huebsch contended, in order to fully research the claims by both sides on this issue.
This had many politicos shaking their head. How could it possibly require this long to research the issue? “I mean, it takes the governor all of three months to put together a $50 billion, biennial state budget,” says one Republican observer.
Some also questioned whether Walker would end up changing his mind about delaying this long. The fact that it was Huebsch rather than Walker making this announcement gives the governor wiggle room to change course and say Huebsch misunderstood. Indeed, the governor has sent so many different signals on this issue that anything is possible.
It might have been a golden opportunity for Democratic challenger Mary Burke to bash the governor and offer a clear stand on the issue, but as one Democratic observer concedes, “she has not distinguished herself on the issue.”
Walker initially had a clear stand on the Kenosha casino, which the Menomonee Tribe wants to operate. By announcing that he would not “play Solomon” and that all the tribes in Wisconsin would have to unanimously approve the new casino, he made that an impossibility. Both the Ho-Chunk and Potawatomi tribes clearly opposed what they see as competition with their casinos, with that latter being the most adamant.
In short, Walker’s stance would clearly be welcomed by the powerful Potawatomi, which gave at least $1 million to the liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee in its efforts to help then-Gov. Jim Doyle win re-election in 2006. The Potawatomi also gave at least $450,000 to help Doyle and other Democrats in 2002. As I’ve reported, the tribe has spent $1.3 million on contributions to federal politicians and $6.1 million on lobbying Congress since 2001.
The Menomonee, meanwhile, are a poor tribe with little to spend on campaigns or lobbying.
Yet, not long after taking this firm stand on the issue, Walker began to waver and make more equivocal statements. For awhile, his administration began offering daily updates on this issue, adding suspense and more confusion to an issue that once seemed crystal clear.
So where does Walker stand now? Says the Republican source: “the feeling is the Walker administration will approve the casino.”
Why the flip-flop? Certainly there are Republican politicians in the Kenosha and Racine area, like Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), who support the casino. And it could help Walker in two counties that lean Democratic. (As for Milwaukee, where Democratic politicians oppose a new casino, arguing it will steal jobs and revenue from the Potawatomi casino, Walker will lose that county anyway.)
Indeed, Charlie Sykes felt compelled to rush to Walker’s defense, reportedly bashing Belling for making “toxic,” “dangerous,” and “over-the-top” remarks.
But that didn’t stop Belling, who has also made the sweeping claim that the Potawatomi casino has hurt attendance for the Bucks and Admirals, for bars, restaurants, bowling centers and just about any form of entertainment in Milwaukee. “When the tribe whines that a casino in Kenosha will hurt it… they ignore the damage they have done to their local competitors,” Belling wrote in the Waukesha Freeman.
“It’s amazing how Walker reacts to talk radio,” says the Republican source, adding that insiders know it’s the best way to get the governor’s attention. But maybe it’s not so amazing, given how relentlessly Belling and Sykes promoted Walker when he first ran for and won the race for county executive.
Advisors to the Menomonee Tribe seem aware of this: a letter to the governor by the tribes takes note of the support it has from all the talk radio hosts.
But if Walker has decided to support the Kenosha casino, then why the latest announcement delaying his decision until after the election?
True, it may push the Potawatomi to donate to Walker’s 2014 campaign, something the tribe wouldn’t do if Walker had already approved the Kenosha casino. But Walker is likely to be flush with campaign money, all observers agree.
“Better to freeze the money when you don’t need the money,” says the Democratic source. As long as the casino issue isn’t decided, the Potawatomi may be wary of giving to Jon Richards (running for Attorney General) or any other Democrat, for fear of annoying Walker.
Walker may also be worried about swing districts in the Milwaukee metro area that have voters who are employed at the Potawatomi casino and would oppose the Kenosha casino, says the Republican source. Ken Skowronski, recently elected to fill the vacant southwest suburban District 82 Assembly seat and Jessie Rodriguez, recently elected to the 21st Assembly seat in the South Milwaukee-Oak Creek area, are Republicans who could both be vulnerable this fall.
All of which leaves a major opening for Burke. True, she faces a divided party on this issue: Milwaukee Democrats oppose the Kenosha casino while some in the Kenosha and Racine area support it. But Milwaukee Democrats are so opposed to Walker that they will eagerly back Burke even if she supports the Kenosha casino.
Meanwhile, she could really score points in Kenosha and Racine by supporting the new casino. She could frame it as a jobs issue, where Walker could be vulnerable. She could put Walker in a box: either he delays and gives her this issue, or he flip flops and looks like he’s following her.
Burke has hinted she might support the proposed casino: “This is not just gambling,” she noted in one interview. “It’s entertainment, it’s along the border, the other states like Iowa and Illinois have certainly gambling and entertainment options. So could this be something that could actually create more jobs overall? That’s the approach I would have taken.”
But offering hints or vague accusations (her spokesperson Joe Zepecki has accused Walker of “playing politics” on the issue) won’t have much impact. Burke needs to take a firm stand and show she is a leader, not an equivocator. Right now neither Burke nor Walker have been very adroit in handling the proposed casino. But the challenger is far more likely to need such issues if she has any chance of defeating Walker.
-Conservatives have been divided on the casino issue. Last year a report by the right-leaning Wisconsin Policy Research Institute found the Wisconsin casino market is “saturated” and any new casino would result in “no net gain” for the people of Wisconsin. “The maturation of the market means that, if new casinos are built in Beloit, Kenosha, Sheboygan, and/or Shullsburg, those communities will benefit, but other communities will suffer in about the same proportion, and the state, on the whole, will not be better off.”
By contrast, Belling has argued that a new casino in Kenosha, while it would siphon some revenue from the Potawatomi casino, would result in more total revenue and jobs.
-Blogger Jim Rowen used this issue to argue that Belling is far more independent as a conservative advocate while Sykes tends to simply echo Republican talking points. Many politicos, I suspect, would agree with this assessment.