The Massachusetts casino industry is still in its infancy, but its brief life has been fraught with drama — from former Massachusetts House Speaker and staunch gambling opponent Sal DiMasi's conviction on federal corruption charges to East Boston's surprise "No" vote on a proposed casino at Suffolk Downs.
Now, casino opponents are hoping for one more dramatic twist. They’re asking Massachusetts to vote “Yes” on Ballot Question 3, which would repeal the state’s casino-gambling law. But casino supporters are doing everything in their power to keep the 2011 law on the books.
On a rainy afternoon last week, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers building in Dorchester looked deserted. Inside, though, several IBEW members were working the phones, urging their union peers to back Martha Coakley for governor —and to vote "No" on Question 3.
"Every single slot machine has a plug," IBEW Local 103 president Lou Antonellis said, explaining why his union is taking such an intense interest in the repeal fight. "It has a data connection, it has a light, it has a camera. All electrical work. It means the world — it really means a lot for electrical workers."
According to Kevin Molineaux, a journeyman electrician working the phones at Local 103, the importance of those jobs is hard to overstate. He lost a job of his own back in 2008, as he was planning his wedding. And he remembers his electrician father traveling as far as California to find work.
Now, Molineaux is volunteering his time to keep his union brethren from experiencing similar struggles.
"I know what it's like to be laid off," Molineaux said. "People should be able to work on their own, and provide for their families, without having to ask for help.
But according to John Ribeiro, the chairman of the group Repeal the Casino Deal, union opposition to Question 3 is less clear cut than it seems.
"Union leadership is obviously monolithically against us," Ribeiro said. "But when you talk to the rank-and-file members, I’ve been in places where they’ve been shouting me down in support of the party line. But when the cameras stop, these people, these family men and women, come up to me and thank me for what I’m doing."
Ribeiro started out opposing a casino at Suffolk Downs — not because he was morally opposed, but because he didn’t want one in his neighborhood. Now, he’s trying to convince Massachusetts to reject casinos altogether.
"The more I learned about how casinos are implemented, and what they’re all about, that’s how I became opposed to them statewide," Ribeiro said. "Every single place I’ve looked, what happens with casinos — crime goes up, property values go down, and small businesses can’t compete."
Those are practical objections. But Question 3 supporters are also framing their opposition in explicitly moral terms.
Recently, an anticasino rally inside Old South Church attracted a group of clergy that was strikingly diverse—racially, ethnically, and religiously. But there was one strong point of agreement: Casinos are a bad choice for Massachusetts.
"To step into Old South Church is to rub shoulders with Samuel Adams and Benjamin Franklin, who worshipped in this church," the Rev. Anthony Livolsi of Old South intoned at the rally's outset. "It is to seize the spirit of the Boston Tea Party, which was launched from this church — and of the first abolitionist tract in America, which was written from this church."
"The old legendary lions of my congregation, they birthed, they built democracy in Massachusetts," Livolsi continued. "So I think they would be rolling over in their graves to know that a corrupt gaming commission is trying to do an end run around democracy and trump the will of the people."
For Molineaux, however, those appeals to morality ring a bit hollow.
"I believe people have a choice whether they want to gamble or not gamble," he said. "There’s lottery tickets you can go to the store and purchase now. You can play Mega Millions, or whatever other game is playing tonight. That's gambling. Are they fighting against that?"
The answer, of course, is that they're not. Which means that — whether you're a gambling supporter or a gambling opponent — Question 3 is the only game in town.
Watch the Greater Boston segment: