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Shirley Leung

Gubernatorial candidates reflect on casino law

For Deval Patrick, casinos are found money for the state treasury. But what do his potential successors think about one of the most controversial laws of his two-term administration?

Even with a grass-roots repeal of the casino law underway, most gubernatorial candidates, including Attorney General Martha Coakley, Treasurer Steve Grossman, and Boston venture capitalist Jeffrey McCormick, support legalized gambling — if it’s done right. Or, if you are businessmen Joe Avellone and Evan Falchuk , you don’t believe the state should pass laws one year and repeal them the next. It’s just not good government.

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Two other candidates, Charlie Baker and Don Berwick, back repealing the casino law. Baker, a Republican and former health insurer chief executive turned venture capitalist, doesn’t think the state can support three resort casinos and a slots parlor; Berwick, a Democrat and a health care policy guru, believes casinos create public health problems such as gambling addictions and are a bad way to create jobs.

Only Juliette Kayyem, my ex-Globe colleague and former Obama administration official, wouldn’t get on the phone with me to talk casinos. Apparently, when you’re no longer a columnist you become shy about sharing your opinions.

The candidates are a bit all over the map, but one pattern is emerging: The citizens of Massachusetts are paying close attention to legalized gambling, and it could become a key, if not defining, issue in the gubernatorial race.

“It’s not without risk,” said Maurice Cunningham, a professor of political science at UMass Boston. For example, if you decide to come out against casinos, then you need a plan to replace the anticipated hundreds of millions of dollars that are supposed to flow into the state coffers. And it’s much easier to pooh-pooh casino money far from Beacon Hill, but reality hits when every community and agency clamors for a handout.

“You do have to govern when you get there,” Cunningham added.

Baker said he supports the effort by the Repeal the Casino Deal group to get a question on the November 2014 ballot that would undo the casino law. The group recently collected about 75,000 certified signatures and appears to have enough to move to the next stage, which means it will probably be making its case before the Supreme Judicial Court.

Coakley’s office ruled in September that the ballot initiative could not go forward because it was unconstitutional, but the group appealed to the SJC. The casino law allows up to three gambling resorts and one slots parlor. The state is in the process of awarding licenses, but several communities have voted down efforts to open casinos on their turf.

“I would be for getting on the ballot,” Baker said in an interview. “There should be a go-slow strategy. Why would you presume you could build four or five of these?”

Instead, Baker touts a one-casino plan for the state, something he championed during his unsuccessful run against Patrick in 2010.

Of all the candidates, Berwick is the most staunchly opposed to casinos. Berwick, a Newton pediatrician, said the electorate has concerns, too.

“I don’t think I have been in a meeting in two weeks where someone hasn’t raised a question” about casinos, said Berwick, who has crisscrossed the state in recent weeks to hear from voters.

The candidate who is most effusive about slots and blackjack is Grossman. That’s probably because as treasurer he’s actually had to run the numbers on the impact of casinos on the state lottery, which he oversees.

His calculation? Our highly profitable lottery will take some kind of hit, but overall “we will be $300 million to the good,” Grossman said, describing what the state stands to gain annually from casinos. Then there are the jobs, which are even more important to him, roughly 15,000 in the construction and service sectors.

As attorney general, Coakley is involved in enforcing civil and criminal gaming laws and provides legal representation for the state gaming commission. The Democrat said she supports legalized gambling and that the state can do it right.

“Massachusetts has the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of other states,” she said in a recent interview.

Coakley recognizes there’s a growing anticasino movement, but said that’s OK. “This is a very healthy debate for everyone to have,” she said. “The statute is working the way it should.”

Win or lose, the repeal effort is forcing candidates to deal with casinos, and they need to play their hands carefully.

Shirley Leung can be reached at sleung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.
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