The Boston mayoral candidates have struggled to get the attention of voters distracted by the trial of Whitey Bulger, the arrest of Aaron Hernandez, and the improbable World Series run by the Boston Red Sox. While many voters took a while to determine who they’ll support as next mayor, one issue that did seem to resonate was the vote on a casino in East Boston. The City Council ultimately decided to limit the vote to East Boston residents, but everyone in the Boston area has an opinion on the proposed gaming facility at Suffolk Downs.
Seventy-two percent of East Boston residents reported following the proposal “very closely,” according to a WBUR poll. That same poll found that the troubled proposal may narrowly be defeated. Political watchers say they’re hearing a defeat is imminent as Election Day continues.
Facing Election Day with a casino referendum is familiar territory for me. In 1994, the Narragansett Indian Tribe proposed building a casino in my hometown of West Greenwich, Rhode Island. Our rural town had much better highway access than the tribe’s land in Charlestown, so it took the risk of a statewide referendum to approve or reject the proposed location.
Meetings of casino opponents in my mother’s living room are some of my first memories of political activism. As a young teenager, I was pressed into service licking envelopes for mailers and I tried to think of snappy jingles to convince voters casino gaming wasn’t a good idea for our town—or the state itself. The hard work paid off. The measure was rejected by 54% of Rhode Island voters. 64% of West Greenwich residents rejected casino gaming. West Greenwich is still one of the least densely populated towns in Rhode Island, and 47% of the town’s land is preserved.
Obviously, the Suffolk Downs casino is different. It would be built in a location that already functions as a gaming facility. But the massive scale can’t help but affect the small restaurants, shops, and arts community that already earned Boston the nickname the “hub of the universe.” East Boston is flourishing, with new development and a bustling restaurant scene. Boston would be wise to create blue-collar jobs as subsets of its greatest existing strengths—its world-class colleges, universities, research, and medical facilities—than to take a gamble on gaming.