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An anti-gambling warrior digs in against NY casino expansion

Published: Monday, Oct. 28 2013 10:55 p.m. MDT

David Blankenhorn is a lonely warrior, facing a sea of politicians who see free money in gambling in an era when revenue is priceless. But gambling comes at a high price, Blankenhorn argues.

Julie Jacobson, Associated Press

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David Blankenhorn fantasizes about slot machines. Not about playing them. He wants to smash them with sledgehammers.

"I have this notion," he said over lunch near his Manhattan office recently, "of walking to Albany (New York's capital) smashing slot machines along the way."

In the end, he settled for a single smashing event in front of the state capitol. Blankenhorn is campaigning to stop a Nov. 5 referendum in which voters will decide whether to open seven new state-sponsored casinos, or what Blankenhorn, president of the Manhattan-based Institute for American Values and an outspoken gambling critic, calls "slotinos," since the bulk of the floor space and revenue now center on the flashy one-armed bandits.

One of Blankenhorn’s core arguments is that casinos draw most of their income from problem gamblers, resulting in a regressive tax that falls heavily on lower-class and elderly patrons.

Industry representatives insist that only 1 percent of adults tend to be problem gamblers.

“Gambling opponents have tried for years to put a number on what that percentage is,” said Judy Patterson, executive director of the American Gaming Association, “but there is no credible study that can identify that percentage.”

A recent New York Times poll found that 60 percent of New York City residents support casino expansion, but they are far less supportive of bringing casinos to their own city, with 42 percent favoring and 50 opposed. Residents of the city comprise 40 percent of eligible voters statewide.

Blankenhorn knows he will likely lose this fight in his own backyard, but he has his eye on the bigger picture. Nationwide, state-sponsored gambling has exploded since the 1980s, as voters and politicians embrace its promise of revenue without taxes. Today, only two states, Hawaii and Utah, have no form of legalized gambling, and the pressure for expansion grows each year.

A long legacy

Slot machine smashing has a long history, amply demonstrated in Blankenhorn's recently released 125-page report, "New York's Promise: Why Sponsoring Casinos Is a Regressive Policy Unworthy of a Great State." The report is a jeremiad against state-sponsored slot machines in his home state, punctuated with pictures of politicians from a bygone era destroying them.

One shows a fierce and sweaty Mayor Fiorello La Guardia in 1934, swinging a sledgehammer at a pile of machinery. In another picture, an entire barge bursting with slot machines leaves for the harbor dumping ground.

La Guardia wasn't alone. In another picture taken out West in 1939, off a fishing boat in California's Santa Monica Bay, four machines are captured in midair, one already splashing. The California dumping was spurred by then-Governor Earl Warren, another fierce gambling opponent on his way to the Supreme Court.

"Gambling is socially undesirable and it is also bad economics," Blankenhorn quoted La Guardia as saying. "A large part of this betting would have to come from people who cannot afford to lose."

"Because its goal is profit," Blankenhorn wrote in "New York's Promise," "not disinterested sponsorship of recreation, the house's only interest in the matter is getting me to place as many bets as possible and lose as much money as I can."

But in this case, the house is the state government. In Blankenhorn's mind, the state gambling institutions of today are little different from and little better than the mob bosses of yesteryear.

"The mobsters would go into the back room of the casino where the money was kept and stuff a lot of the money in suitcases. It was called 'the take,' and it was a hefty amount." The take was in return for providing financing as well as for protection and establishing territories.

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