Book propels Steele's anti-casino campaign

Former congressman Bob Steele says he is convinced that governments have no business promoting an industry that many believe is predatory.
Former congressman Bob Steele says he is convinced that governments have no business promoting an industry that many believe is predatory. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo

Bob Steele steps to a lectern at the Liberal Club in Fall River, Mass., and proceeds to tell another audience about the impact of southeastern Connecticut's Indian casinos.

It's a stump speech, of sorts, but it's devoid of partisan politics, which is perhaps a little surprising in the case of Steele, a former Connecticut congressman and one-time Republican gubernatorial candidate.

He speaks compellingly, his tone measured, his message almost entirely fact-based. Like the 2012 book whose publication led to this early-June appearance - and the nearly 200 other appearances he's made the last 18 months or so throughout Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island - Steele delivers a cautionary tale.

He tells an audience of fewer than 40 people that Congress opened a Pandora's box when it passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988, authorizing Indian casinos. Now, he says, the country is "awash" in casinos, both commercial and tribally owned. And, he adds, state governments are shamelessly promoting the development of more of them, eager to raise revenues without directly raising taxes.

"One wonders how closely they've looked at the downside," he says.

The 75-year-old Steele has immersed himself in that downside, convinced that governments have no business promoting an industry that many believe is predatory, relying, he says, on problem gamblers for 40 to 50 percent of its profits. He recites a litany of social and economic costs casino opponents associate with gaming: local economies skewed toward low-paying service jobs, pressures on housing markets and school systems, and spikes in the numbers of drunken-driving arrests and embezzlements.

In an interview days after his Fall River talk, Steele was asked about his motivation. What drives him to keep showing up wherever casinos are on the agenda? Why travel to Albany one week, Fall River and Granby the next, Boston and Worcester the one after that?

"It's all since the book," he said, referring to "The Curse: Big-Time Gambling's Seduction of a Small New England Town," the "fact-based novel" he worked on for parts of 14 years. Set in a fictional version of Ledyard, where Steele lived from 1977 to 1998, after he left politics, the story plays out against events that took place during the 1990s.

Steele, who now lives in Essex, all but shelved the project after a major publisher lost interest in it around 2009. Then, in 2011, Massachusetts authorized the Bay State's first casinos.

"I thought, if there's ever going to be a strong interest in this topic, it's now," he said.

After the book came out, Steele promoted it at bookstores, libraries and historical societies. Soon enough, he started getting invitations to speak to civic groups, at colleges and before anti-casino groups in places where casinos had been proposed, such as Citizens for the Common Good, the Fall River organization that called him.

Steele typically sells copies of his book at his appearances, but "in 99 percent of the cases" receives no compensation for speaking.

"I do it because I believe in it," he said. "For me, it's a public policy issue. The question is: Should government be encouraging people to gamble just because our political leaders don't have the courage or the foresight to develop more stable forms of revenue?"

About 70 percent of his talk is the same every time, Steele said. The rest is tailored to the audience, be it in Leominster or Palmer, Tewksbury or Milford, East Boston or Newport.

Sometimes he's appeared on panels, but usually he's by himself. His audiences have ranged from five to 500 people, he said.

He offers his listeners hope, pointing out that several Massachusetts towns have rejected casino proposals in referendum votes. Recent poll results even suggest a drive to repeal the Bay State's expanded-gambling law could succeed if the state's highest court allows the question to appear on Election Day ballots in November.

"Nobody gave Repeal the Casino Deal a chance six months ago," Steele said. "Now look at it. The arrogance of political leaders saying it shouldn't be on the ballot is mind-boggling."

He holds up the example of Palmer, the western Massachusetts town that shocked many observers last November when its voters narrowly shot down Mohegan Sun's plan to develop a casino and water park off Exit 8 of the Massachusetts Turnpike.

"Four to five weeks before the referendum, the opponents had no organization," Steele said. "They pulled it together in the last two weeks and educated people. They kept saying, 'The more you know about casinos, the less you like them,' and the message got through. ... And for anyone to suggest that Mohegan Sun didn't make a full effort to win is preposterous."

Las Vegas-based MGM Resorts International, which proposed a project in Springfield, was left without competition for the sole western Massachusetts casino license, which gaming regulators officially awarded Friday.

"I have no doubt the Springfield casino will be very successful - in the first year," Steele said. "After that, who knows?"

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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