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Sides in fight over casino law ready to raise their voices

Work continues on the Plainridge racecourse slot parlor, as the steel frame of the prefab slots building is constructed.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Work continues on the Plainridge racecourse slot parlor, as the steel frame of the prefab slots building is constructed.

From an East Boston campaign office with creaky floors and used furniture, leaders of the statewide effort to repeal Massachusetts’ casino law are getting ready to throw their first punch against the billion-dollar business.

Canvassers next week will begin knocking on doors, and volunteers will crank up the phone banks, said Darek Barcikowski, manager of the Repeal the Casino Deal campaign.

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Across town, the gambling companies that will defend the casino law are gearing up their own campaign, which is expected to cost more than $10 million. It will be guided by high-powered consultants at the Dewey Square Group, including Michael Whouley, former national field director for the Clinton/Gore 1992 presidential campaign.

They have been quietly gathering video for television commercials showing workers building the state’s first slot parlor, underscoring the argument that a vote for casinos is a vote for jobs.

These are among the first signs of life in a renewed casino campaign, which was expected to immediately upend the political landscape in June, when the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a casino repeal initiative may appear on the November ballot. Instead, it has been mostly quiet — until now.

The casino companies backing the defense of the law include MGM, which has a lock on the Western Massachusetts casino license; Penn National Gaming, which won the state’s slot parlor license in February for a project in Plainville; and Mohegan Sun, which has proposed a casino in Revere, in an effort to win the Greater Boston casino license. Wynn Resorts, also seeking the Boston-area license, is not involved in the political campaign, a Wynn spokesman said.

The race appears close, with casino supporters in the stronger position at the moment.

A Globe poll completed this week suggests 49 percent of voters want to maintain the casino law, while 40 percent want to overturn it. Ten percent are undecided. The poll’s margin of error is 4 percentage points.

It is the second consecutive weekly Globe poll in which casino supporters were under 50 percent. A June poll pegged casino support at 52 percent; opposition to casinos has been steady across several polls.

In anticipation that the pace will pick up after Labor Day, both campaigns have spent the last several weeks adding staff and honing strategy for what will be Question 3 on the November ballot.

Casino opponents are also meeting with “potential large donors,” looking for enough money to buy ads and establish a presence on TV this fall, Barcikowski said.

The opponents would not reveal how much money they have raised so far, though they say they are covering expenses as they add staff and pay for essential items, such as voter software.

“We know full well that we will be outspent in this race by the casino moguls who are desperate to prey on the people of Massachusetts,” the repeal group said in a statement, which cited anti-casino victories in a number of local referendums last year. “We . . . know the big casinos outspent the grass roots by 100 to 1 in some of our communities and we still won.”

The ballot question committees must file campaign finance reports with the state in early September.

Casino opponents opened their no-frills campaign headquarters last month, above a bakery in East Boston, the community at the heart of the state’s anti-casino movement. Members of the underfunded local group No Eastie Casino led the defeat of a Suffolk Downs casino proposal in Eastie last November, in an election shocker that earned the opposition movement new credibility and raised its profile.

Opponents are launching new attacks in their arguments based on a cascade of bad news for the casino industry, such as expected layoffs at four failed gambling resorts in Atlantic City. “The timing for us is great,” Barcikowski said. “We are able to bring attention to it and say, ‘Do we want that coming to Massachusetts in the coming years?’ ”

The repeal campaign begins the fight with a statewide database of about 1,000 volunteers, Barcikowski said. To meet their voter-contact goals by Election Day, they will need to steadily grow into a volunteer army of 5,000 to 6,000, he said. He is confident the movement will attract enough foot soldiers.

“I don’t think [casino companies] will be able to compete with us on the ground,” he said.

On the other side of the issue, Wooten Johnson, who managed Democrat Juliette Kayyem’s campaign for Massachusetts governor this year, will be campaign manager for the pro-casino effort, confirmed Justine Griffin, managing director at Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications, who will be a spokeswoman for the campaign.

Representatives of the pro-casino campaign are already organizing supporters, such as politicians, business groups, and labor unions, into a grass-roots campaign to defend the casino law, Griffin said.

The casino companies expect to take their campaign to the airwaves after Labor Day. Griffin said she did not know the size of the campaign budget. “We expect to spend the money to get the message out to the voters,” she said.

Other people with knowledge of the pro-casino campaign say the participating companies have discussed contributing at least $5 million each to the effort.

The pro-casino message to voters will be built around the issues of creating jobs and repatriating revenue that Massachusetts gamblers spend at out-of-state casinos. Those messages have tested well in the industry’s polling, one of the people familiar with the campaign said.

Individual casino companies used similar campaign themes — jobs and revenue — in local referendums around Massachusetts, with mixed success.

Voters in Everett, Revere, and Springfield approved resort-style casinos at the ballot box, though similar referendums have failed in West Springfield, East Boston, Palmer, and Milford. Residents of Plainville, Raynham, and Leominster supported slot parlor proposals in those towns.

Penn National’s slot parlor is deep into construction at the Plainridge Racecourse harness racing track. The ongoing construction project will allow the pro-casino campaign to show real-life workers who would lose their jobs if the casino law is overturned.

Casino companies are confident the law will be upheld once their message is out. Said one person with knowledge of the campaign: “We have a great base and all the money.”

Mark Arsenault can be reached at Mark.Arsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.
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