What happened?

“It would be a mistake to attribute the success to one particular part of the campaign,” says Bob Tenenbaum, spokesman for the casinos. It wasn’t just one ace. It was a royal flush.

Bigger pot: The 2009 casino campaign was the costliest ballot issue in Ohio history. Including paid petition-passers, Penn National Gaming and Cleveland/Detroit businessman Dan Gilbert spent more than $43 million.

Dealer’s choice: They also changed the rules. “The other campaigns just put all their money into TV ads and kept their fingers crossed,” says David Lynaugh of Strategic Public Partners Group in Columbus. “We used advanced micro-polling. We identified 1 million voters who were predisposed to gaming but not likely to vote, and targeted the heck out of them.”

Tenenbaum says the campaign made “an enormous amount of phone calls,” especially aiming for young, urban voters.

High-low poker: Bad news for the economy was good news for casinos. “We had very strong support from organized labor and especially the FOP (state Fraternal Order of Police), and that was almost entirely the jobs issue,” Tenenbaum says. As the economy cratered, voters wanted development and jobs. Police backers were influential with their pitch that casino taxes could prevent cop layoffs and protect public safety.

A winning hand: Chip Gerhardt worked on the campaign for Government Strategies Group in Cincinnati. He says the key was local appeal. “The plan was the best because the revenue goes local, not to state government. It also contributes to urban revitalization and repatriates money that has been leaving the state for other casinos” such as Hollywood Casino in Lawrenceburg, Ind.

And a wild card: “What I saw in this campaign convinced me that something needs to be done,” says Sen. Jon Husted, former Ohio House Speaker, now a Republican candidate for Secretary of State.

Husted says the casino campaign shows that Ohio needs better spending disclosure. Catherine Turcer of Ohio Citizen Action agrees.

“I think we need good information, especially during elections,” Turcer says. “We should be able to weigh the source.”

In this case, the sources were politicians, community leaders and well-known Ohioans, such as former U.S. Treasurer Mary Ellen Withrow, whose name was on dollar bills before it was in TV ads for casinos. Or former Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken, who became a local point-man for casinos as a lobbyist for Calfee, Halter & Griswold of Columbus. There were dozens of Ohio opinion shapers who led the casino blitz.

And some hit the jackpot by betting on casinos.

Off the record, a well-known Cincinnati leader described how the casino campaign offered six figures for a public endorsement, with a money-back guarantee on donations if the measure failed. Similar reports have surfaced around the state, say Turcer and Husted.

“Some were paid,” Tenenbaum acknowledges. But the same people who had so much to say for casinos during the campaign are not talking now.

“Mrs. Withrow has declined to answer” such questions, Tenenbaum says. “Charlie Luken acknowledged his law firm was paid, but they haven’t said how much.”

Luken did not return a call and e-mail asking for his comments.

Neither did Scott Tipton, vice president of the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police, who did TV ads for casinos.

They have every right to decline. Ohio law only requires disclosure of payments to direct contractors. Campaign finance reports by the casinos’ Ohio Jobs and Growth Committee list millions to initial contractors and consultants such as Strategic Public Partners. But after that, there’s a firewall. Payments by those contractors to individuals and subcontractors do not have to be reported.

“What you have there is people following the law,” Tenenbaum says. Lynaugh adds, “If greater disclosure is required, we will be glad to follow that. But that’s the way the law is written.”

The table stakes are high. Four urban casinos will be prize-winning cash cows. Compared to casino income, even a $43 million campaign is like a $1 ticket that wins a Super Lotto jackpot.

In its first month, Penn National’s new $330 million, 3,000-slots Hollywood Casino in Lawrenceburg, Ind. brought in $44 million. If Ohio casinos do as well, annual revenues could be measured in billions. And local government will be first at the payout window for taxes.

That’s why disclosure is important.

“Smart lawyers always figure out the loopholes,” Turcer says. “Unless you can follow the money, you are left with a treasure hunt and you can never get to it.”

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters says laws that curb campaign spending are like trying to stop water from running downhill. “It’s a lot better to go with no limits and have complete transparency.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on campaign finance said spending limits on corporations are unconstitutional “censorship to control thought.”

In response, Husted’s proposal, Senate Bill 222, would “require vendors to disclose to campaign committees all expenditures made on their behalf and to require campaign committees to report all expenditures made by third parties on their behalf.”

Husted says 24 states require full spending disclosure. “When we’re talking about nearly $50 million being spent in a campaign, we need to know how,” he says. “We had labor unions, business groups and others taking positions, maybe because they were compensated to do so. That looks like a conflict of interest.” ■
 

You Can Bet on Slots in Cincinnati by 2012

The ballot issue passed by voters requires a minimum $250 million casino at Broadway Commons, framed by Broadway, Gilbert and Reading roads in northeast downtown Cincinnati.

The latest rendering should be close, says Chip Gerhardt, spokesman for the developer, Dan Gilbert’s Rock Ventures. “It shows the scale and the level of detail. And it shows it would be a first-class addition to our community, not a big box. It will benefit neighborhoods, all downtown hotels and bars, restaurants and the Convention and Visitors Bureau.”

An Ohio Casino Regulatory Commission will be created by June, he says. “Then they should start moving dirt in late summer, with an 18- to 24-month build-out. The casino should open in mid- to late-2012.”

Based on estimates of revenues, the 33 percent tax on casinos will give $12 million to Hamilton County, $21 million to the city of Cincinnati and $14 million to local public schools, Gerhardt says.

Another 10 percent of the tax is divided among law enforcement, racing, the Ohio casino commission and treatment of gambling addiction.

Statewide, backers promised 20,000 jobs and licensing fees of $50 million for each casino, to be used for job training.

But the winning hand may be held by casino operator Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and founder and chairman of Quicken Loans — a match made in high-roller heaven for gamblers who lose the rent money.