Former health care executive Bill Walczak on Tuesday became the first mayoral candidate to aggressively oppose a casino at Suffolk Downs, raising moral and economic objections to relying on gambling as an engine for growth.
In a letter to the state gambling commission, Walczak described a casino as an economic drain that would stifle long-term growth and devastate working-class East Boston, while bringing mainly low-paying jobs.
“Boston is better than a casino,” Walczak said in an interview as he recounted the gambling addictions of his mother and aunt. “There’s better ways of building jobs. There’s better ways of building up the city.”
In a crowded race largely devoid of polarizing issues, casino gambling has begun to emerge as a fault line separating mayoral candidates. Much of the debate has revolved around whether a vote on casinos should be limited to East Boston or opened to the entire city.
With a dozen candidates battling to succeed Mayor Thomas M. Menino, candidates need issues that will distinguish them from one another.
Walczak argues that as mayor he would have the power under the state gaming law to reopen a casino agreement if a pact is signed in the waning months of Menino’s administration.
On Monday, an East Boston legislator said he was switching loyalties in the mayor’s race because the candidate he originally backed, Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, favors a citywide vote on gambling. Approval of a casino is seen as more likely if the vote is restricted to East Boston.
Walczak asks: In the midst of a development boom, why does Boston need a casino at all?
“It’s the boldest policy pronouncement we’ve seen in the race so far,” said Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College. “For folks looking for backbone out there, Walczak is going to produce one in pretty short order with this kind of announcement.”
Suffolk Downs declined to comment. Activists campaigning against a casino have been frustrated that mayoral candidates have danced around the issue, said Celeste Ribeiro Myers, a founding member of the group No Eastie Casino.
“Hopefully, this will break the conversation open,” Ribeiro Myers said. “This is a great opportunity for folks to establish themselves as a candidate who stands for something.”
The Globe asked all mayoral candidates to complete a survey on key issues, which included a yes or no question about a casino at Suffolk Downs. Walczak and Charles L. Clemons Jr. both wrote that they are against a casino. Clemons could not be reached Tuesday.
Six candidates said they support a casino: city councilors Felix G. Arroyo, Rob Consalvo, and Michael P. Ross; state Representative Martin J. Walsh; John F. Barros; and Charlotte Golar Richie. Two candidates — City Councilor John R. Connolly and Conley — left the casino question blank.
“Dan’s an agnostic on the casino itself,” said Conley campaign spokesman Michael Sherry. “He has no moral opposition to it, but he feels very strongly that there has to be an open conversation about the impact it would have on East Boston and the city as a whole.”
Conley made news early in the mayoral race when he called for a citywide referendum to approve a Suffolk Downs casino. Menino favors limiting the casino vote to the East Boston neighborhood adjacent to the horse track. Conley offered a nuanced position, suggesting that he would require a casino to win a majority vote across the city and locally in East Boston.
But Conley paid a price. State Representative Carlo P. Basile of East Boston had originally endorsed the district attorney’s mayoral bid but defected after the call for a citywide vote. The lawmaker lined up behind Connolly Monday.
Connolly has been adamant that the vote should be limited to East Boston, but he has been less clear about whether he favors gambling as an economic development tool.
“I don’t have strong feelings about casinos themselves,” Connolly said Tuesday, noting that details of the deal being negotiated with Suffolk Downs were unknown. “It’s about the broader context and how it impacts a neighborhood.”
In late March, a Globe poll found 44 percent of respondents in favor of a Suffolk Downs casino and 37 percent against.
For Walczak, the issue of casino gambling is personal and professional. As a cofounder of Codman Square Health Center, he spent decades with an close-up view of the scourge of addiction. Walczak said when his mother was in her 80s, she developed a penchant for gambling in Atlantic City and lost control. His aunt, who inherited a significant amount of land in Pennsylvania, became such a heavy gambler that casinos flew her to Atlantic City. She lost almost everything.
“As a person who has spent his career in public health, I understand the kind of addiction that gambling is,” Walczak said. “It’s every bit as bad of an addiction as a substance abuse addiction.”
Suffolk Downs is one of three competitors for the Greater Boston resort casino license. Once Menino’s office has negotiated an agreement with the track, the proposal must be approved by voters. Under the state casino law, the vote in large cities is limited to the local ward — in this case East Boston — unless the mayor and the City Council call for a citywide referendum.
Walczak said he observed myriad problems with the bidding for a state casino license. Any agreement with Suffolk Downs will have been hashed out by the Menino administration and then handed over to a new mayor in January. Walczak wanted the gambling commission to know now that he would revisit any casino deal.
The most significant flaw, Walczak said, was that residents are being sold a casino under the guise that it will create thousands of jobs. But the city has not offered residents other options, he said.
Suffolk Downs could become the city’s next Innovation District, Walczak said, noting that it is closer to the airport that the thriving South Boston Seaport. His campaign created a schematic that shows some of the potential: lab space, offices, townhouses, and even a park. “It’s not an issue of casino, yes or no,” Walczak said. “It’s an issue of, what’s the alternative to a casino?”Andrew Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.