Maine voters reject more casinos

Posted Nov. 08, 2011, at 10:14 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 09, 2011, at 12:18 p.m.

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Chris O'Neil, spokesman for Mainers Against a Rotten Deal, claims victory on Question 2 at an election night party in Biddeford.
Chris O'Neil, spokesman for Mainers Against a Rotten Deal, claims victory on Question 2 at an election night party in Biddeford.
Race horse owner Stephanie Gray of Cumberland watches early returns at the Question 2 election night party in Biddeford.
Race horse owner Stephanie Gray of Cumberland watches early returns at the Question 2 election night party in Biddeford.
A large sign expressing opposition to Questions 2 and 3 stands on a front lawn in Biddeford on Tuesday night.
A large sign expressing opposition to Questions 2 and 3 stands on a front lawn in Biddeford on Tuesday night.
Traffic streams by signs for and against Questions 2 and 3 as voters arrive at a polling place at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Biddeford.
Traffic streams by signs for and against Questions 2 and 3 as voters arrive at a polling place at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Biddeford.

BIDDEFORD, Maine — Supporters of expanded gambling in Maine were dealt a serious defeat Tuesday night, with voters decisively saying no to two different referendum questions.

With 87 percent of precincts reporting just after 12:30 a.m., 55 percent of voters voted against Question 2, which would have allowed racinos in Biddeford and Washington County, and 45 percent voted in favor.

The margin was even greater on Question 3, which would have allowed a casino in Lewiston, with 63 percent voting against the proposal and 37 percent for it.

“Stick a fork in it,” said Chris O’Neil, spokesperson for Mainers Against a Rotten Deal, declaring victory.

“It’s verification that Maine isn’t ready to install five casinos before number two has opened yet.”

Maine currently has one racino, Hollywood Slots in Bangor, and one casino under construction in Oxford County. If approved, Questions 2 and 3 would have allowed two more racinos and one more casino.

Less than a mile away, supporters of Question 2, which was backed by the owners of Scarborough Downs and Ocean Properties Limited, conceded defeat.

“It was a very difficult race, with a lot of blood and sweat put into it,” said Campaign Manager Toby McGrath. “At the end of the day, the rest of the state said no to Biddeford, and no to Washington County, as well.”

As plans for a downtown casino in Bates Mill No. 5 in Lewiston fell overwhelmingly at the polls, the mood at the campaign’s headquarters changed from sadness to anger.

While casino supporter Peter Robinson hurled insults at casino foes celebrating on a television tuned to the nightly news, campaign spokesman and Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert blamed everyone from Gov. Paul LePage to the Maine media.

“Do I sound upset?” Gilbert said. “You bet. I’m upset at the governor, for getting involved in things when he said he wouldn’t. I smelled a rat then and I smell one now.”

Question 3 failed spectacularly at the polls, picking up only 36 percent support statewide as of 11:30 p.m. The casino won in Lewiston, but by a mere 900 votes — not the kind of hometown support backers needed.

“I’m shocked that we didn’t do better,” said Stavros Mendros, manager of Great Falls Recreation and Redevelopment. His group backed the Lewiston plan.

The casino idea is not dead, Mendros said. He’d like to bring it back — and the work will begin right away.

Mayor Gilbert blamed LePage for the loss, for saying last week that five casinos were too many. That quote was used by casino foes to push against the Lewiston effort, even though LePage later changed his stance.

“I fault the governor,” Gilbert said. “It’s clearly evident that I don’t care for this guy because he comes from Lewiston and he’s done nothing for Lewiston. I find that most unfortunate.”

He also blamed Maine’s media for having a distorted view of Lewiston.

“The only time people come here to write stories is about negative stories,” Gilbert said. “Consequently, what you get is a steady diet of negative things.”

Question 2 supporter McGrath said the defeat didn’t represent a “moralistic vote,” but rather was the result of existing gambling interests spending money and effort to protect their interests against possible competition.

If the three proposed gambling sites were approved and built, gross revenues at Hollywood Slots could fall by as much as 30 percent, suggested a spokesman for the Penobscot County for Table Games & Jobs PAC. And a spokesman for the Friends of Oxford Casino PAC argued that voters should slow down the gambling expansion in Maine and at least wait to see how the Oxford casino fares after it opens.

In Washington County, a mood of expectation and hope in Calais quickly turned to disappointment as town after town in southern and western Maine defeated Question 2, which would have allowed the Passamaquoddy Tribe to build a $25 million racino in Calais. Several dozen Passamaquoddy tribal members and leaders as well as Calais city officials had gathered at the Calais Motor Inn to watch the voter returns posted.

Early in the evening, Indian Township Governor Joseph Socabasin paced the room, predicting that the voting would be close. But as each hour passed and town returns began coming in, Socabasin could see that the measure was likely to be defeated. Only a handful of supporters remained after 10 p.m, and most of those were admitting defeat. Even Washington County towns, which could have benefited from the construction and operation jobs the racino would have created, were split in their support.

Danforth voted 58 yes, 59 no. Cutler voted 67 yes, 58 no. But tribal leaders were particularly disappointed by the lack of support from the Penobscot Nation, which split their votes at 57 yes, 44 no.

“I am disappointed and have no idea why it was not supported by the Penobscot Nation,” Tribal Governor Clayton Cleaves of Pleasant Point said. “They should have supported us. It is in their DNA.”

Socabasin said he was equally disappointed and had no explanation for the lack of support from the Penobscots.

This year’s ballot marked the seventh time in 11 years that voters in Maine considered the casino or racino question. With the exception of the 2003 Hollywood Slots vote, and the vote allowing the Oxford County casino last year, each proposal had been turned down.

This year’s campaigns got off to a relatively late start, but finished with a flurry of activity as proponents sought to charge the electorate with the promise of jobs — both during the construction phase and on-going later in operations — and a boost to state and local revenues.

On the other side, gambling foes brought out arguments that had been successful in the past — linking casinos and racinos with a host of societal problems, from increased crime to problem gambling, as well as development and traffic issues.

As the election night drew on, results came back consistently in favor of the anti-gambling camp. O’Neil tracked results and compared them to the Oxford County Casino vote of last year, which squeaked through on a thin margin. The anti-casino/racino vote was consistently 5 to 7 percent ahead in communities, compared to how they voted last year, O’Neil said.

Question 3 saw little chance of passing, even early in the night, but Question 2 initially seemed to be headed toward passage.

Scott Taylor of the Lewiston Sun Journal and freelance reporter Sharon Kiley Mack contributed to this report.

To see full election results broken down by town, visit maineelections.bangordailynews.com.

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