Intent on winning approval for a casino at the Suffolk Downs racetrack before he leaves office, Mayor Menino has sought to make the plan seem like a done deal. He’s gone on the offensive against rival casino proposals and quashed resistance at City Hall. At his insistence, the City Council has backed off from a citywide casino referendum, one of the few obstacles that could thwart the plan.
Menino’s strong-arming has left casino opponents — and anyone else who simply has concerns about the idea — with only one outlet: the race for Menino’s replacement. Now, thanks to mayoral candidate Bill Walczak, the casino may finally get the broader scrutiny it deserves.
Recently, Walczak broke with the other leading candidates by saying flatly that he would oppose an East Boston casino. However voters feel about gambling, Walczak’s declaration was a clarifying moment in the campaign, forcing others to make clear their positions on the issue. He also triggered an overdue discussion of alternative visions for East Boston, something that never happened amid the backroom politicking to stitch together the casino plan. And by rejecting a cherished Menino initiative, Walczak moved the campaign in a healthy direction. Nothing about the outgoing mayor’s policies or legacy should be considered sacrosanct as the candidates offer their own visions for the city.
Walczak cited his family’s own history with gambling addiction to explain his stance. But the social impact isn’t the only reason to question the wisdom of a huge new gambling facility. A casino would also commit East Boston indefinitely to a particular kind of economic future, one dominated by gambling and related service industries. Walczak, in opposing the casino, proposed something else: a new innovation district, patterned on the one in the Seaport District. At the least, it’s an idea worth examining; the proximity to Logan Airport gives East Boston some potential for attracting firms with national ambitions.
If the casino evolves into a major issue in the race, it could present state gambling commissioners with a conundrum. Under the law, it seems possible that Menino could push through a casino plan, skip a citywide vote, and conclude a deal before a new mayor takes over. It’s unclear whether his successor could reverse or even reopen such an agreement. Yet awarding the casino license to Suffolk Downs in such a manner would clearly violate the spirit of the casino law, which requires plans to earn the public’s consent.
The commission needs to interpret its mandate to consider public approval broadly. Especially if Menino denies city residents a referendum, the mayoral race may be the public’s only opportunity to weigh in. Few residents are likely to vote based solely on a candidate’s position on casinos. But the issue needs a thorough debate by the whole city, and Walczak deserves credit for bringing it to the forefront.