I Hit a No Casinos' Nerve
Around the State
No Casinos is at least partially right in its latest press release, which, by the way, is generously devoted almost entirely to my gaming issues. (Thank you, for the unexpected publicity, guys. I'm like the family dog -- you can do anything but ignore me.)
I have indeed made myself the loyal opposition. To No Casinos' hypocrisy.
(Be sure to read the full press release in the link above or in the attachment at the end of this column.)
I despise the hypocrisy I see in the gaming debate as much as I do the manipulation of facts and figures to build fear. It's all phony baloney. It's pretend sanctimony. And, no matter how No Casinos cares to cast its selective outrage, hypocrisy runs like a spine down the back of Florida's anti-gambling groups -- including theirs.
Two years ago No Casinos cried foul over Genting's 27 lobbyists. Now they're four away from that number.
Lobbyists on the No Casinos' payroll include Daniel Thomas Barrow, Travis W Blanton, Hubert (Bo) Bohannon, Melanie R. Brown, Amy M. Christian, Ashley Dieguez, Stephen D. Dyal, Randall (Randy) Enwright, Mercer Fearington Jr., T. Martin Fiorentino Jr., Nicole H. Fried, Tom Gallagher, Jennifer Jankowski Green, Thomas C. Hobbs, Jon E. Johnson, Trevor Mask, Joseph G. Mobley, Mark Pinto, James C. (Clark) Smith, Meredith Woodrum Snowden, Timothy F. Stanfield and Katherine S. Webb.
I asked No Casinos who is paying the organization to employ these lobbyists, but they simply miscast the question to give Sunshine State News a spanking. You can see the questions asked, with their answers, in the attachment below.
I also asked how large the No Casinos staff is. John Sowinski, No Casinos president, who may or may not have prepared the answers to my questions, said he wouldn't "be opening any part of his playbook to his opponents."
Why not? To my knowledge, every lobbying firm in Tallahassee provides a staff list. I didn't ask him to lay out his strategy for me, I just wanted an idea of the nonprofit's firepower. What's to hide at No Casinos?
Sowinski's website says he's a founding partner of Consensus Communications, with more than 20 years experience in public policy, media relations, message development, and paid media management. As president of No Casinos, he could, and did, contract with his own firm for the 2013-2014 lobbying job.
Doesn't that make Sowinski and No Casinos a special interest, just like the gaming people?
Sowinski is considered the premier expert on statewide referendum campaigns in Florida. He has an unmatched record in statewide ballot initiatives, leading nine successful campaigns in Florida – more than any other consultant. He's a ballot box guy, not known so much as an in-the-Legislature's-face guy.
Its No Casinos' lackey-duty for Disney that most raises my hypocrisy antenna. I think this anti-gambling lobby group -- if not wholly owned by Disney -- at least has The Mouse as its major shareholder. Or is that thought too tabloid for Sowinski & Co.?
It isn't the Central Florida location they share -- though that must make conferencing easier. It's the series of wild coincidences.
Why isn't No Casinos all over any kind of gambling? Any kind. The ever-growing Florida Lottery? The card parlors? The cruises to nowhere? The barrel races? The tribal compacts? Sowinski's raiders give these guys a pass.
Oh, he says, they are. They've been out there all this time fighting other forms of gambling. But show me the beef. Show me the money. Show me the army of lobbyists to keep the nondestination-resort-casino gambling in check. Says Sowinski, "We're 'No Casinos,' not 'No Lottery,' not 'No Horse Racing,' dog racing etc." Right.
State groups looking for help protecting members' turf, like the Restaurant & Lodging Association, the Florida Chamber and the various retail associations -- they back No Casinos, that's a given. But the Seminole Tribe and Disney sit on many of their boards. They're all pals at the palace. If that isn't hypocrisy -- the Tribe with the sixth largest casino in the world just 75 miles from the Magic Kingdom -- please tell me what is.
In Florida, Disney rules. What the Mouse wants, the Mouse gets. And the Mouse wants to keep the lion's share of Florida convention business. The Mouse wants people getting off airplanes and bringing their money to Disney theme parks. In their eyes, the status quo is everything.
In 2012, No Casinos gave money to Dade Heritage Trust so that organization could keep working to keep Genting from developing The Miami Herald site. That's when the Disney-No Casinos-connection rumors revved up big-time. Not just in Miami, but in Tallahassee as well. And not just by gossip-loving gaming lobbyists.
Wrote Nick Kakanis in the July 27, 2012, Florida Clarion, "Money was funneled to the Dade Heritage Trust from No Casinos by notorious slash-and-burn political operator John Sowinski, who fronts for the No Casino group, funded largely by Disney and the Florida Chamber of Commerce."
Gambling interests don't need to deal in hypocrisy. They aren't trying to sell lalaland, they're selling resort casinos. They're selling opportunity, not perfection. They're selling I-give-you-something-you-give-me-something. They're selling a boost to the local and state economy -- it's just a question of the size of the boost.
I'm not saying they're all good guys. I'm saying they don't need to make their case with pretense.
Casino moguls are ready to make a big investment in Florida, they know they're going to come out on top financially, they've got the bucks and they're prepared to shell out on the front end for lobbyists, lawyers, PR consultants, anybody who will help them win the hearts and minds of Florida legislators. No hidden agenda there. What you see is what you get, I don't care if they hire a gazillion lobbyists.
A colleague at another news organization who read No Casinos' "Open Response" -- the No Casinos press release about me and Sunshine State News -- fired over an email: "I think you hit a nerve. Or three," he said.
I agree completely.
I'm basically a columnist. I write more commentary than news stories for Sunshine State News. When I'm columnizing, my work is so labeled. If that's the "bias" No Casinos' president John Sowinski accuses me of, I'm guilty as charged. I'm pretty sure that's where opinion belongs in any "newspaper," electronic or otherwise.
I'm sorry it annoyed Sowinski that I asked a couple of the same questions last week that I asked in the summer. But if I hadn't contacted him, if I'd just written a column without asking him to refresh, you know his press release would have risen an octave. Apparently it didn't impress him that in August he was invited to write a guest column in Sunshine State News stating his side -- and he did.
I have made no secret of the fact that I think resort casinos are a classier venue for adult entertainment in Florida than the growing mish-mash of mostly low-end options, everything from cruises to nowhere to fronton poker rooms. That's a "bias," if you like, I first revealed in a Jan. 21, 2013, column, "Why Not Casinos?"
I'm proud of Sunshine State News and what it's accomplished in Florida in less than four years, and I'm sorry John Sowinski tried to marginalize this publication that won several honors from such first-rate national news sources as the Washington Post.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423.