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Casino opponent John Ribeiro continues a tradition of activism

John Ribeiro was surrounded by activism growing up in East Boston. He has embraced his role as chairman of the Repeal the Casino Deal coalition, but some opponents describe him as a zealot on the issue.

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

John Ribeiro was surrounded by activism growing up in East Boston. He has embraced his role as chairman of the Repeal the Casino Deal coalition, but some opponents describe him as a zealot on the issue.

John F. Ribeiro’s journey from database designer and neighborhood softball coach to major political player may seem unlikely but, in his telling, it was almost inevitable.

Ribeiro, chairman of the Repeal the Casino Deal coalition, is the man who led a successful statewide effort all the way to the Commonwealth’s highest court aimed at letting voters overturn the 2011 gambling law — a measure that will now appear on the November ballot.

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Activism has always surrounded this son of East Boston, a community that united to fight Logan Airport’s expansion and demand top-notch parks as reparations.

His father, a retired probation officer, showed a young Ribeiro the strength of his community at the East Boston police station in 1981, when neighborhood residents fearing for their safety seized the station after budget cuts led to its closure.

“I remember going in when it was all citizens that were running the police station,” Ribeiro, 44, said in a recent interview. “Taking calls, responding to calls.”

About that same time, his mother made an impression by calling out a man drinking beer on the job.

“My mother, who’s not an imposing figure, gets out and starts yelling at this truck driver . . . that he should be ashamed of himself,” he said. “She’s the original mother against drunk driving.”

‘We kept looking for someone to fill that second slot . . . and when no one else was available, I boned up on the material and became a spokesperson. I was the fill-in guy.’

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Ribeiro’s own activism began by accident, when he was unable to secure two speakers to voice potential economic, safety, and addiction issues associated with casinos for a 2010 forum.

“We kept looking for someone to fill that second slot . . . and when no one else was available, I boned up on the material and became a spokesperson,” he said, laughing. “I was the fill-in guy.”

Scott Harshbarger, a former state attorney general who has opposed bringing casinos to Massachusetts for two decades, recalled meeting Ribeiro shortly before the casino bill passed the Legislature.

“I thought . . . this would be almost a perfect person to lead this, if he possibly could, because he just seemed to me a sincere, dedicated person who had no ulterior motive other than to be really concerned about how this was going to affect his community,” Harshbarger said.

Opponents have been less admiring. Chip Tuttle, the chief operating officer of Suffolk Downs who has often faced off with Ribeiro over the casino proposed for the racetrack, said in an e-mail that Ribeiro is “a very decent person but a zealot on this issue for sure.”

“It’s not possible to have a reasonable dialogue,” Tuttle said, “because he starts with an absolute position, that gaming is intrinsically evil and that in 38 other states and in world-class cities like New York and London, many of which have thrived with casinos in their midst, it has led to widespread devastation and ruin.”

As the eldest child, Ribeiro always had a big brother’s protectiveness for his five sisters, including Celeste Ribeiro Myers, who worked with him to defeat the Suffolk Downs proposal at the polls last fall and is now running against East Boston’s pro-casino state representative, Carlo Basile.

Their work has required sacrifices. Ribeiro, a Winthrop resident since 2004, has missed many family dinners with his wife, Melanie Giacalone-Ribeiro, 43, and their daughters, 8, 10, and 12.

“The kids miss him,” Giacalone-Ribeiro said. “Every day they ask if he’s going to have a meeting or have to go somewhere. It’s definitely draining.”

The sacrifice, Ribeiro said, is made with his children in mind. “I can either pass this problem along to my kids, try to solve it, or teach them how to solve problems like this when they grow up,” he said.

Ribeiro recalled that in his own childhood he learned civic responsibility and Revolutionary history from an inspirational fourth-grade teacher, leading to his high school job as a Freedom Trail guide. In the casino fight, he sees parallels to Patriots confronting British tyranny.

“The strongest branch of government is the people,” Ribeiro said. “We have the most power. . . . It’s just a matter of whether we’re willing to actually use that power.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.
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