Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Crazy Casino Politics

Both Gov. Walker and Mary Burke have mishandled the Kenosha Casino issue.

By - Dec 30th, 2013 12:12 pm
Gov. Scott Walker

Gov. Scott Walker

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.”

Mary Burke

Mary Burke

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.)

But some observers say there is a far more important reason that Walker changed course: talk radio. Milwaukee talk radio host Mark Belling has pummeled Walker for not supporting the new casino, accusing him of doing so to gain campaign donations from the tribe. Also supporting the Kenosha casino have been radio talkers Jeff Wagner and Jay Weber and Vicki McKenna, who is based in Madison.

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.

Short Takes  

-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.

20 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Crazy Casino Politics”

  1. Mike Bark says:

    One of the biggest fallouts from Act 10 fight is that it has essentially removed the spine from Scott Walker. He’s gone from a guy who had strong opinions about things to someone who is trying to run out the clock to get re-elected. He promises 250,000 new jobs and then does essentially NOTHING to reach that goal. One could even argue that in the short-term, Act 10 hurt the economy because it took disposable income away from people in the middle class and had them use it for things that do not create economic benefit. Look at how weak the tax cut package was. Lowering the top rate from 7.75% to 7.65% is hardly bold reform. In fact, almost all of the tax increases that Governor Doyle passed near the end of his term still stand today. What other bold thing has Walker done despite his majorities in the house and senate? If he’s for the Casino, say so. If he’s against, say so. Instead, he’s merely seeing if he can get the Potowotomi’s to sit this election out.

    And yes, there is a huge difference between Sykes and Belling. Sure they are going to agree on a lot of stuff, but Sykes really wants to be a Republican insider. He really wants to hand out Margaret Thatcher awards. He really wants to be liked by Scott Walker, Paul Ryan and Ron Johnson. As such his show and website have acted as a press release for the Republican Party. Belling is far more independent and will call people out if he disagrees with them. Charlie has no opinion on the casino issue because Scott Walker has yet to express an opinion on the issue. Even Jeff Wagner is more likely to call out a Republican.

    I think you also see a big difference in how they did their TV shows. Belling had liberals on the panel like Joel McNally, Walter Farrell, Mordecai Lee and Bruce Murphy. Sykes doesn’t to that. Sure Lynn DeBruin and Mikel Holt are left of center, but I don’t think either are hard core liberals. Even the conservatives he has on are only his acolytes these days like Brian Sikma and former state representative Michelle Litjens who wasn’t exactly an esteemed politician.

  2. David Ciepluch says:

    Casinos are no benefit to the community. They do not create beneficial jobs or a product sold outside our region to bring in real wealth. Casinos act as a siphon of wealth from many people that can ill afford to lose funds that could be spent on other items of necessity for their families in the local economy. It would be interesting to see if Illinois goes through with a proposal to allow casino gambling and allow construction in Gurnee across the Wisconsin border. Casino are nothing more than wealth transfer from people in a given community to Native American tribes.

  3. Observer says:

    Playing both sides against each other has created a gold mine for Scott Walker. Why would he want it to end?

    I didn’t realize that Mary Burke has already won the nomination. I know unnamed Democratic “leaders” have anointed her, both I’ve yet to meet any rank and file Dems swooning over her. Now it might well be that those of us who find Walker repugnant will return to the fold and vote for ABW, but the election is still some ways off.

  4. Mike Bark says:


    Do you take the same issues with things like Professional Sports? After all, that’s just a form of entertainment just like a casino.

  5. Todd Spangler says:

    I think the $50 million biennial state budget stated in the column should be $50 billion. Fifty million dollars doesn’t go very far nowadays.

    I listened to Belling for years when I lived in Milwaukee and am not surprised of his position on the Walker/casino issue, as he was extremely critical of Walker’s predecessor Jim Doyle in showing what Belling thought was excessive favoritism towards the Potawatomis and other tribes in gaming compacts Doyle negotiated with them while governor. Belling was cynical of Doyle’s motives in view of the large campaign contributions Doyle received from the Indian tribes, particularly the Potawatomis, and felt that the compacts were skewed to favor the tribes at the expense of Wisconsin taxpayers. I can understand why Walker has come under criticism for appearing to perhaps be showing a similar sort of favoritism towards the politically powerful Potawatomi in the context of the current casino controversy.

    In Missouri, there are a number of casinos operating, none of them that I am aware of being owned by Indian tribes, and a couple of the ones here in the St. Louis area actually owned by a publicly traded Las Vegas based company (Pinnacle Corporation). Of course, the State of Missouri derives considerable revenue from these casinos also, and it seems reasonable to conclude that this may be helping keep tax rates lower than they might be otherwise. As far as the sort of financial drain from other entertainment venues in the area that Belling alleges the Potawatomi casino causes in Milwaukee, I think that is likely true to a degree, but I think that casinos and gambling as it exists in Wisconsin and Missouri have become a part of American culture, for better or for worse. The number of low income minorities I see gambling away their paychecks in the casino here in downtown St. Louis is deplorable from my perspective, but if the casino ceased to exist, most of those individuals would simply drive across the Eads Bridge to visit the casino on the Illinois shore of the Mississippi, owned by a different company, to do exactly the same thing. Those who don’t drive or who can’t afford a car due to their gambling habit can just use the light rail line that goes right past either one. An ideal situation? No, but where people wind up spending their money, in the end, is pretty much up to them.

  6. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    The budget is closer to 70 billion. Hard to believe that we wer working on a budget o 1969 to keep it under a billion. David is right the casinos do not do much except separate money from low income people to the Indian reservations. One in Kenosha would separate Illinois money and transfer it to Wisconsin but produce little in real economic growth.
    Walker has a problem in what he campaigned on. He said that there would not be any net gain of gambling in state, so in order for him to do that he has to negotiate a reduction in other areas and money form this one to those tribes. Not easy to do.
    Walker inherited a mess fiscally and could not get rid of those Doyle/Burke taxes until the economy picks up. He has vowed to reduce taxes and has already started in his second budget.
    Read his book and get sense of what was going on.
    I think that most liberals can read.
    Bruce what is your email address, old one does not work.

  7. Observer says:

    “Doyle/Burke taxes”?

  8. bruce murphy says:

    Todd, you’re correct, that should have been $50 billion, which we corrected.
    To readers trying to reach me, I’m at

  9. tim haering says:

    Mary Burke hasn’t a chance against Walker, no matter which side of the casino bed she gets up on, until she explains the obvious dearth of significant others in her life. We all have them. The question dogged Herb Kohl well into his 2nd term, “Are you gay?” His answered variously leaned negative. Everybody is too scared to ask Burke. But without a man, woman or child in her life — as virtually all of us have — she will invariably have to answer that question or suffer voters’ doubts. If she wants to make some headway, she needs to be more like the rest of us … or use her wealth to be nobody’s governor but yours. Nice column, Bruce. Sorry my observations have little to do with your topic.

  10. Mike Bark says:


    I thought cutting taxes was supposed to stimulate economic growth and thereby create more tax revenue for governments. Your excuse as to why Walker hasn’t repealed the Doyle tax increases is weak.


    Herb Kohl’s orientation never impacted his elections. He always won pretty easily. Burke will lose if she simply tries to be the anti-Walker. Scott Walker got that right in his book. Tom Barrett couldn’t win because he never really outlined what he’d do differently than Scott Walker. He made the point that Mitt Romney also lost in Wisconsin in part because all Romney did was run as an anti-Obama.

    Burke also has some problems I think with the business career. Great, she worked for her Dad’s company, but the flip side is that Company does do most of their manufacturing overseas and they also have the whole Lance Armstrong issue. (The Trek brand exploded because of Lance and not because Mary Burke was opening up Europeon markets) More and more people will begin to find out how they treated Greg LeMond in that process and won’t think any business experience at Trek is all that cool.

  11. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    The Left slammed Terry Kohler for having manufacturing plants for his companies outside of Wisconsin, it was a big issue.

  12. Observer says:

    WCD, you have an unusual memory. Terry Kohler’s 1982 campaign basically ended when he admitted he knew nothing about the Wisconsin state budget. He never recovered from his gaffe. I don’t recall Kohler manufacturing plant locations being brought up. If they were and I’m taking your word that they were, it was certainly not a big issue.

  13. tonyb says:

    The biggest obstacle for walker is the change in the state constitution that the voters voted for and that is no expansion of gambling which means if the casino is approved than the other casinos share of the total pot goes down. He does follow the state and us constitutions. So what do you want a elected official who follows the intent of the constitution or business as usual.

  14. David Ciepluch says:

    Professional sports and their economic impact have had some studies across the country. Studies are mixed with baseball showing no real economic benefit in some cases. Sports as well as gambling will try to contain as much spending as possible in their own venue. That is the case for a new Bucks area. That is why Potawatomi is building a hotel to house all the needs and control most of cash flow potential of a visiting customer. All entertainment venues are dependent on people making enough in wages in a regional area to support the presentations. In the case of the Bucks, most average Milwaukee citizens cannot afford to attend a game. They will spend money elsewhere. Pro sports player salaries, gambling casino profits, taxes paid generally leave the area and do not benefit the community.

    It is optimum to have 1/3 of all jobs in a region in a production type position that brings funds into the local economy. The Milwaukee area had that kind of balance at one time to support entertainment service industries. I do not know what the balance is today. I do know that that from about 1980 to 2000, there was a shift and loss in overall family median annual income of about $2 Billion from Milwaukee and gain Waukesha County.

  15. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Just in!! Right Wisconsin reports that 24/7 Wall Street. com ranks Milwaukee in the top ten worst run cities in the nation. Naturally, it has been run by Leftists and by people like Bruce Murphy, give him credit on the county pensions, for the last 50 years. Wisconsin is well run, everyone agrees on that but not Milwaukee.

  16. Observer says:

    Thank you Bruce Murphy for the county pensions. I had no idea you were responsible. We need to get the Leftists out of the mayor’s office and return to the Socialists. “EVERYONE” agreed Milwaukee was then the best run city in the nation.

  17. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Almost anything better, but the only person in Milw.. cty interested in stopping the violence is David Clarke.

  18. Observer says:

    Wisconsin Conservative Digest , you’re in favor of continuing violence?
    WCD, does cty stand for city or county? Now the 2012 Census lists Milwaukee city as having a population of 598,916 which puts 598,915 in favor of violence. But the county population is at 955,205 which leaves you with 955,204 in favor of violence. Now in 2012 Waukesha County has 392,292 souls. Are all of them also in favor of violence ? I hope I’m not being presumptuous by claiming most of us would like to know. Tg for our High Sherriff being a follower of Gandhi. We need more like him. Maybe he can have a talk with Larry Sanders.

  19. Brien Lee says:

    Mike Bart, congrats on nailing the differences between Sykes and Belling.

    I’m a liberal, and my liberal friends always wondered why I’d listen to Belling when I lived in Milwaukee, as they considered him cut from the same mold as the other conservative talkers.

    Aside from the fact that he created the mold, Belling follows his own compass, while those that followed him (former substitute hosts on his program for the most part) simply stay true to the playbook.

    Belling is a thinker and analyst, and as such, is always more surprising and entertaining than his competitors. He will diverge from the playbook, add new insights, and form unique opinions that are his own (and from which other talk show hosts would run for fear of drying up sources, or other forms of reprisal.)

    Oh, and Belling breaks news, offers great insights on the entertainment and sports business, and has actually been inside a casino.

    I’ve never met the man, and the only time I called his show he hung up on me. I don’t generally agree with his politics.

    But he is great radio, cares about the city, and can’t he painted with the same brushstroke as the other talkers.

  20. Bill Kurtz says:

    David Ciepluch is totally right. I am amazed that hardly anybody is opposing the Kenosha casino for the reasons he cites. Opposition to gambling could and should unite liberals (because gambling preys on the poor), conservatives (because I thought they believed in the work ethic) and everybody else (because gambling inevitably leads to political corruption).
    Have the gambling interests bought off everybody except Wisconsin Family Action, (which I’ve rarely agreed with)?

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