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Shirley Leung

Martha Coakley is hedging her bets on casinos

The craps table at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File

Martha Coakley is bouncing around on the casino issue like a pair of dice on the craps table. Only by chance do you find out what she really thinks.

As attorney general, she has supported casinos — so much so that her office denied an antigambling group’s petition to repeal the 2011 law allowing them. When the Supreme Judicial Court in June ruled the group could put its initiative on the November ballot, Coakley said she was “pleased” by the decision and that it would be “healthy” for voters.

Now it seems Coakley, the Democratic gubernatorial front-runner, is doing her own end run on the ballot process.


Over the last week and during Wednesday’s and Thursday’s Democratic candidate debates, she began solidifying a new stance on gambling. Actually, it’s a position that Republican candidate Charlie Baker began trumpeting a month ago.

If the repeal effort succeeds, Coakley, like Baker, would consider legislation to allow a casino to be built in Springfield.

The logic: No one else besides a casino operator would bet $800 million on downtown Springfield. The real reasons: Candidates desperately want Western Massachusetts and labor votes.

During the debates, Coakley explained that the city of Springfield voted for a casino and was awarded a license, so the Commonwealth should allow them to have one.

“Let’s keep an open mind,” she said. “That’s nuanced looking at the issues, not saying yes or no in a knee-jerk way.”

Actually, I would like a yes or no answer, and so would her opponents in Tuesday’s primary, Steve Grossman and Don Berwick, who rightfully pounced on her during the debates.

“We cannot overturn the will of the people. It undermines democracy,” said Grossman, who supports casinos, but would veto legislation to legalize gambling if the repeal passes.


Berwick, who opposes casinos, perhaps best summarized the frustration of many a Democrat: “I do not understand your position. I’ve heard you say it over and over again. This is the lack of clarity that I think that is being called out, Martha, and it got you in trouble before.”

The reference, of course, is to Coakley’s lackluster run against Scott Brown in the 2010 US Senate race. Against the odds, she lost miserably to him in the general election after handily winning the primary.

Here’s what is so confusing about the idea to allow Springfield to go ahead with its casino plans even if the state law is repealed: It ignores the fact that Plainville, Everett, and Revere also voted for gambling. How come Springfield alone would get to gamble?

“There is nothing unique about Springfield,” said Joe Fernandes, the town administrator in Plainville, where a slots parlor is already under construction and would need to be shut down if the repeal passes. “Their people voted for it, our people voted it. Revere or Everett — they are all in the same boat. I don’t see why anyone should be treated differently.”

Coakley wouldn’t get on the phone to clarify her position, but Baker was willing to talk. He told me that a couple of months ago he walked the site in Springfield, where MGM plans to build a complex featuring a casino fronted by restaurants and shops. “It’s going to be a neighborhood,” said Baker. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”


Baker, who has been a one-casino guy from the get-go, said he has supported other ballot petitions, but in this case believes that Springfield should get another shot at becoming a gaming mecca. He would hold hearings and get the Legislature involved to make that happen. “It’s worth a conversation,” he said.

Now, I am as procasino as they come in the media, but gambling is such a contentious issue that everyone — not just those who will live with a casino in their back yard — should get to vote on it. The impact of a gambling complex won’t be confined within the borders of the community where it is built in. If state voters say no, we shouldn’t allow the neon lights to be turned on anywhere.

Scott Harshbarger, the former attorney general and a ringleader of the Repeal the Casino Deal movement, had harsh words for the two most serious candidates for governor.

“It’s really an outrageous insult to the people of Commonwealth, a total disrespect for the people’s right to vote,” he said. “It also shows, I suppose, the lesson that sadly we’re all going to learn that perfectly reasonable people start to do crazy things when the debate about casinos dominates the political landscape.”

Crazy makes sense in this case. It’s the only way to explain how these candidates are acting.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.