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JOAN VENNOCHI

A casino opponent’s vindication

Scott Harshbarger isn’t morally opposed to casinos. He just thinks they’re a bad bet for gamblers and unnecessary in a state with much better options for economic development.

In the 1990s, he took a stand against them during two terms as state attorney general and has been fighting their advance ever since. Harshbarger’s battle seemed lost in November 2011, when Governor Deval Patrick signed the Expanded Gaming Act into law. But two years later, the war isn’t over and Harshbarger may yet be part of a winning crusade.

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Today, he’s advising the citizens behind “Repeal the Casino Deal,” a grass-roots group that supports a ballot question calling for the repeal of the state law.

Last week, representatives said they had filed more than 90,000 signatures. They need at least 68,911 certified signatures to advance the process toward the 2014 ballot. Even if they get the required number, they are not guaranteed a ballot slot. That’s because Attorney General Martha Coakley disqualified the question, saying it violated the state constitution. She contends that since casino applicants have invested money in the licensing process, a repeal of the casino law would amount to uncompensated taking of property. “Repeal the Casino Deal” backers are appealing Coakley’s decision to the Supreme Judicial Court.

On Beacon Hill, repeal isn’t popular, but then Harshbarger was never that popular on Beacon Hill. When he ran for governor in 1998, some Democrats went out of their way to undercut their party’s nominee. They viewed Harshbarger as sanctimonious and too willing to prosecute fellow politicians. Harshbarger lost to Republican Paul Cellucci.

Popular or not, he never wavered on casinos. He testified at State House hearings, even when relegated to the back of the witness line. His demands for more independent studies were brushed aside. He kept fighting, even as fellow casino opponents were silenced — most notably former House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, who is serving federal prison time after his conviction on public corruption charges.

“Reform is not for the short-winded,” said Harshbarger, quoting John Gardner, the founder of Common Cause — the good government group Harshbarger headed after leaving politics.

Popular or not, Scott Harshbarger never wavered on casinos.

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No matter what happens with the ballot question, Harshbarger feels “vindication” in what has happened so far on the casino licensing front.

Voters in four communities — Palmer, West Springfield, East Boston, and Milford — rejected casino proposals despite heavy spending by proponents. A lack of public support in Foxborough drove casino mogul Steve Wynn to Everett, where he won approval from voters but still faces scrutiny from the state gaming commission. A slot proposal failed in Millbury when the developer withdrew before a vote that he was expected to lose.

Meanwhile, two of the state’s biggest casino fans — Patrick and House Speaker Robert DeLeo — are now on record saying they wouldn’t want one in their own neighborhood. DeLeo, a major force behind the casino law, said allowing citizens to make that choice was his goal. “What I envisioned . . . when we wrote the legislation, and obviously it came to a final vote, was that any community that did not want a casino wasn’t going to have a casino, no matter what . . . This has proven us correct,” DeLeo told the State House News Service.

In Harshbarger’s view, the “not in my back yard” phenomenon only partially explains recent ballot outcomes. What’s really happening, he said, is that citizens are being forced to think hard about the tradeoffs that come with casinos. “As attorney general, my job was consumer protection, and that’s how I frame it now,” said Harshbarger. “In every instance, they [casino developers] fail to tell the whole truth of their product.”

Casino backers love to talk about jobs and revenue, he said, but that’s only part of the picture. Traffic and crime are also part of it.

Community by community, Bay State citizens are now debating all the pros and cons in a concrete versus hypothetical way, and that’s good, said Harshbarger. It’s spawning an issues-based grass-roots activism that hasn’t been seen for awhile in Massachusetts.

A ballot question would allow Massachusetts to have a statewide debate and settle the matter once and for all. If voters chose to keep the law, Harshbarger would take that as the final word.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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