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SCOT LEHIGH

In AG race, a clear choice on casinos

CASINO GAMBLING is an issue that cleaves communities, splits Democrats, and muddies alliances. And now it’s becoming an important divide in the Democratic race for attorney general.

This week, Maura Healey, the underdog, declared that she favored repeal of the 2011 law legalizing casinos in Massachusetts. She said her experience as the former chief of the Public Protection and Advocacy Bureau in the state attorney general’s office has led her to that position. Wherever there are casinos, “you see an uptick in personal bankruptcy, in predatory lending, in organized crime, in money laundering,” she said in an interview, echoing arguments she first made in a post on Blue Mass Group, a liberal website.

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Warren Tolman, the front-runner, took a pro-casino position, saying in a statement that people in towns that approve casinos “want the jobs and economic development that will be created.”

Now brace yourself for the cross-currents and complications.

Healey says that a proposed ballot question asking voters to repeal the casino gambling law should go before voters this fall. That’s a break with her former boss, Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose office is charged with deciding which questions qualify for the ballot under the state constitution. Coakley has rejected the casino-repeal initiative, saying it would infringe on implied contract rights because gaming companies have paid substantial fees as part of the application process.

Healey disagrees, saying that if voters can close down dog-racing tracks via a ballot question, as happened in 2008, they can surely repeal legislation authorizing casinos that have yet to be built.

“That [dog racing] was an industry that had been in place for decades and had ongoing business concerns,” she notes. Further, she says the casino companies went into this process knowing a ballot question was a possibility.

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Tolman’s statement avoided that issue, saying that “the decision of whether the question will be on the ballot is in the hands of the SJC [Supreme Judicial Court] and the next attorney general has no role in this decision.” When I talked to him on Thursday, Tolman repeated that formulation, saying he wasn’t going to second-guess the legal analysis by AG’s office.

OK, but let’s be clear: Candidates routinely comment on issues they won’t actually decide. It’s a way of conveying their philosophy to voters.

Why the caution? Tolman certainly faces political complications here. Casino gambling is anathema to many liberals, who worry people will squander money they can’t afford to lose; that nearby hospitality businesses will suffer; and that corruption may rear its head.

One prominent casino opponent is former attorney general Scott Harshbarger. When Harshbarger ran for governor in 1998, Tolman was his lieutenant gubernatorial ticketmate. Harshbarger has endorsed Tolman for AG, a nod that helps Tolman counter the notion that Healey is the choice of law-enforcement professionals while he is the favorite of political insiders. But Harshbarger (who didn’t return my phone calls) wants the repeal question on the ballot.

Contrariwise, unions are hungry for casino-construction jobs. Steven Tolman, Warren’s brother, is president of the state AFL-CIO. Inside the labor movement, it’s considered almost certain that the AFL-CIO will endorse Tolman.

Tolman rejected the notion that those complications have muted his voice. “I do what I think is best for the Commonwealth,” he said. In this case, that has apparently meant keeping his head down.

Tolman also aimed a little barb at Healey, noting that she had only recently adopted her anti-casino position. “If she felt so strongly, where was she two weeks ago?” he asked.

For her part, Healey had this to say about Tolman’s non-position on whether the repeal question belongs on the ballot: “From where I sit, if you are going to be a candidate for attorney general, you have to take on the issue.”

On this one, you can accuse either candidate of playing politics.

Still, Healey has taken a clearer, bolder stand. Further, her assertion that the casino-repeal question should be on the ballot strikes me as the kind of aggressively pro-voter perspective an AG should have. After all, there are good precedents for this.

Given that, voters deserve their chance to be heard.

Tolman seems more like a cagey politician trying to finesse a difficult issue.

Or, to put it another way, on this one, Healey stepped up. Tolman stepped sideways.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.
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