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Casino czar Steve Crosby’s impossible mission

Steve Crosby had a comfortable post in academia and was nearing retirement. So why is he taking on the toughest job in Massachusetts?

JOSH CAMPBELL

STEVE CROSBY was sitting in his comfortable office at the University of Massachusetts Boston when the call came.

It was just before Thanksgiving 2011, and Sydney Asbury, a top aide to Governor Deval Patrick, wanted to talk casinos. In days, Patrick would sign the Legislature’s new casino bill into law, creating a gaming commission vested with enormous powers to shape the multibillion-dollar industry taking root here. Would Crosby consider leading it?

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Crosby’s first impulse was to say no. For one thing, he enjoyed his work as dean of the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies. At 66, he expected to retire there. And after spending decades in high-profile and sometimes high-controversy political posts, he knew this one would come with at least as much risk as opportunity.

Crosby left the door open anyway. “I’ll think about it for a few days,” he told Asbury, “and then I’ll tell you whether I’ll think about it.”

A couple of weeks passed. Crosby’s reluctance evolved into interest and then into temptation. The chairman position would mean a big pay cut — its $150,000 salary was $44,000 less than what he was making at UMass — and a lot more stress. Yet Crosby likes big challenges and, immodestly or not, tends to believes he’s the best guy for pretty much any given task. He took a leave of absence from UMass and said yes.

“If you believe in public service and are interested in public policy, as I have been all my life, how often do you get a chance to take on this big a challenge?” Crosby says now, over a cup of coffee at Berkeley Perk Cafe in the South End.

Dressed in a blue T-shirt and slacks, Crosby looks little like one of the most powerful people in Massachusetts — but that’s exactly who he is. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission, made up of Crosby and four others, will oversee $20 million borrowed from the state’s rainy day fund to cover initial setup costs, hire as many as 150 staffers, and craft the rules that regulate casinos in the state. And rather than make recommendations to the governor, the commission itself will decide which, if any, of the gambling giants now circling get one of three resort casino licenses it’s able to award.

Though Crosby is mapping uncharted territory in Massachusetts, he knows it has been dotted with land mines elsewhere. In 2011, a Pennsylvania grand jury alleged that the early work of the state’s Gaming Control Board seemed more preoccupied with political favoritism and other “noncriminal misconduct” than the public interest.

“The decision has been made to profoundly alter the economic, cultural, and social environment of Massachusetts,” Crosby says. “The challenge is to manage that in the best possible way.” He believes that by being transparent from the start, the commission “will build credibility for later, when the big choices come.”

No matter what they decide, Crosby and his fellow commissioners are going to take heat, especially from spurned bidders and anti-gambling activists. “I’m almost sorry Steve took this job,” says former Massachusetts lieutenant governor Donald Dwight, who gave Crosby a start in state politics four decades ago. “It’s as about as impossible as any position I’ve seen in public service. The odds of him being 100 percent successful — whatever the definition of success — are pretty long.”

***

BORN IN MISSOURI, Crosby moved with his family to Massachusetts when his father, an Air Force officer, was hired as a professor at Boston University. When Crosby was in his teens, the family landed in West Pakistan, where his father was helping develop a curriculum for a new air force academy there (Crosby learned years later that his dad was also working for the CIA). With the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, Crosby says he got caught up in the “gestalt about public service.”

He returned to Massachusetts the next year and eventually captained the Newton High School football team. He played football at Harvard University, too, where he majored in political science. One teammate was star halfback Scott Harshbarger, future Massachusetts attorney general and now one of the state’s fiercest casino foes. “I got the award for being an enthusiastic but not very good player,” Crosby recalls. “I held dummies for Scott to run into.”

Crosby, a self-described moderate-to-liberal Republican, is comfortable crossing dividing lines, whether they’re between political parties or the public and private sectors. On the Republican side, he managed the successful campaign of Lieutenant Governor Dwight in 1970 and the unsuccessful one of Governor Francis Sargent in 1974; then, in 1979, he was Democrat Kevin White’s campaign manager in his successful run for mayor of Boston. In 2006, Crosby cochaired the budget and finance transition team for Patrick. In the decades between, Crosby was a successful entrepreneur in a number of publishing and other ventures. He returned to Beacon Hill as secretary of administration and finance under Governor Paul Cellucci and then chief of staff to Governor Jane Swift during her tumultuous time in office.

Through it all, Crosby has generally managed to avoid getting people so angry at him that he would want to retreat permanently to the garden he tends with his wife, Helen Strieder, retired interim CEO of New England Baptist Hospital, at their home in Jamaica Plain.

Still, he is invariably drawn to the public policy flame. When Patrick needed a panel to review salaries at the state’s quasi-public agencies, he asked Crosby to chair it (while finding that salaries were generally reasonable, the report said the agencies were “universally deficient in oversight”). When the Supreme Judicial Court needed to examine the hiring and promotion practices of the Massachusetts courts and Probation Department in 2010, Crosby again got the nod, this time for a task force under his old teammate Harshbarger (they called for major reforms to ensure merit-based decisions).

Things sometimes got contentious on the SJC panel, recalls another one of its members, James McHugh, a retired associate justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court who is now serving with Crosby on the Gaming Commission. “Some people wanted to go way out in one direction, and others wanted to not go as far,” says McHugh. “With his great sense of humor, Steve was able to just say something that broke the tension” and let them get back to work. McHugh says he agreed to join the commission in large part because Crosby was chairing it.

“I was gratified that someone with the integrity of a Steve Crosby took the [gaming] position,” says Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, who served with Crosby on yet another panel in 2008, this one looking at compensation of high-ranking officials. “Generally, the [casino] law gives some protection to the public. That said, there’s a tremendous amount of money involved, and in other states, the industry has taken over politics. I have concern for his or anyone’s ability to weather the controversy that is sure to [come] around gambling and implementing this law.”

Andy Lietz faced that storm as chairman of the New Hampshire Gaming Study Commission in 2009 and 2010 (disclosure: I was hired to write that panel’s report). A business veteran and no stranger to politics, Lietz was nonetheless taken aback by the vehemence and occasional hyperbole of the casino debate. “[Crosby] will have people coming at him from a thousand different directions,” he says, “all with very strong opinions.”

Crosby is getting a taste of that already. “The intensity with which every word and action is scrutinized is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced,” he says. And he’s seen how deeply casino tentacles already reach into Massachusetts. He’s put off spending time with some friends because they are involved with gambling interests, as lawyers, consultants, or in other capacities. And when he sought legal advice about potential exposure to personal liability if he is sued over his work on the panel, he had trouble finding a law firm to represent him — almost all had some kind of conflict of interest.

Yet late in his long career, Crosby is ready for his toughest job. “Even with its considerable possibility for bumps in the road and even failure, this is pretty exciting,” he says. “This is the kind of life I’ve led. I like big challenges. I like having an impact. I’d rather have me making a lot of these decisions than others.”

Even Harshbarger, who doesn’t have any good things to say about gaming coming to Massachusetts, is confident in the competence and integrity of the commissioners. “Steve is doing this because he truly believes this is an important public service,” he says. “He doesn’t need this to make his reputation. This is going to be his legacy.”

***

WHILE REACTION to their appointments has been generally positive, the commissioners have been criticized for lacking casino experience. But Patrick and other state officials who named the panel argue that competence and a good reputation outweigh  industry experience. Plus, the commissioners will have a full staff  to help them learn on the job.

Crosby has begun his work by schooling himself in the details of gaming finances and regulations, though learning how to play craps is low on his list — he says he’s never even pulled a slot machine arm. He did, however, receive a copy of Casino Gambling for Dummies from his stepson as a gag gift shortly after his appointment. And someone else gave him a pair of pink fuzzy dice, which he hung from the mirror of his silver BMW (“It’s so ironic and tacky that I can’t resist,” he says).

Crosby and his wife recently visited the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut on a kind of reconnaisance mission. As they stood in a sea of slot machines, Helen had an odd thought. “What happens if we win big?” she asked. “It will be a big story.”  She was right— Crosby opted to steer clear of the machines yet again.  

“No one in the world ever before,” he says, “has not played the slots for fear that they might win.”

Phil Primack, a freelance writer and editor in Medford. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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