Nobody should be more proud of Broward County's recent vote for Vegas-style slot machines than state Sen. Steven Geller. During the recent slots debate, the Hallandale Beach Democrat slung quotes from here to the Panhandle, promoting the gaming industry at every turn. You might even have heard Geller's gab on your phone -- the industry robo called homes with the senator's tape-recorded pro-slots pitch before the March 8 vote.
So why has Geller become the front man for the three-cherry pushers? I'll let the money answer that question, since cold cash never lies. The industry has pumped at least $112,000 -- out of a total take of $963,000 -- into Geller's campaign coffers during the past nine years. That's 12 percent, for those of you scoring at home. He's received thousands of dollars from the Hollywood Greyhound Track, Gulfstream Park, Pompano Harness Track, Palm Beach Kennels, and dozens of other gambling interests from around the state and country.
The veteran state legislator is treated like a king by the gambling industry -- or at least like a president, which is the title Geller holds in something called the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States. The New York-based NCLGS is a group of like-minded politicians who know how to get their gambling groove going. According to the group's website: "NCLGS meets regularly to address cutting-edge issues related to the regulation of gaming that are of interest and importance to state legislators. Panel discussions and special educational sessions are designed to provide attending state legislators with a balanced perspective that includes all sides of gaming issues."
Sounds like a high-minded independent forum. What else would you expect when top gambling-industry executives and the politicians they finance come together for a first-class schmoozefest? At the last meeting, held in January at the swank Hawk's Cay Resort on Florida's Duck Key, the list of speakers -- whose fees are often paid by the industry -- was dominated by gambling officials and campaign stuffers. Where else, for instance, could a virginal legislator find Jim McAlpine, CEO of Magna Entertainment (which owns Gulfstream Park), and Tim Smith, president of Friends of NY Racing, together in one place?
Geller, in an NCLGS press release for the event, described it this way: "Nowhere else in the nation can legislators go to find such a diversity of gaming expertise and perspectives under one roof."
There Geller goes again, promoting diversity. What a mensch. His work at NCLGS is so important that Florida taxpayers spend $5,000 in dues and pick up his travel tab for two three-day conferences a year. Since the middle of 2003, the state has paid for the senator's excursions to wonderful hotels and resorts in Newport, Rhode Island; South Beach in Miami; Las Vegas; Tucson; Santa Fe; and, of course, the Keys. Though the legislature hadn't coughed up Geller's expense reports by press time, you can bet the sojourns have cost us thousands of dollars. Geller, who says he really doesn't like to gamble much himself, claims they are legitimate public business trips, since he speaks at the conferences and pow-wows with other legislators.
"I'm cutting back on them," he says of his gaming-industry pilgrimages. "Do you think I like to sit on a plane for 15 hours and stay somewhere for a day or two?"
Sometimes the industry picks up the tab. In 2003, the Global Gaming Expo paid him $2,428 in travel expenses and speaking fees for a visit to Las Vegas, according to financial disclosure forms filed by Geller.
But don't get the wrong idea: Geller works hard for his money. In Tallahassee, he represents the gambling industry better than any other legislator. For the past decade, Geller has been a champion of racinos, cruise ships to nowhere (could there be a more apt moniker?), video gambling, the Florida Lottery, jai alai, dog tracks, slots, poker, horseracing, and craps. He's sponsored numerous bills and tacked on a slew of amendments to spread the goodness that is gambling, much of it in the name of education for the children.
In fact, he works so diligently for the industry that I couldn't help but wonder if he might have some gambling executives among his law firm's clients. Clearly the man deserves some scratch above and beyond the campaign money and free trips. So I asked him about it.
"I have never lobbied on behalf of the industry," he answered before I even had a chance to finish the question. "I've been offered, and it would have been legal, but I've always turned it down. I have never represented a pari-mutuel. I can't think of a time I've ever done that. I've never represented thoroughbred breeders that I'm aware of. I mean, a lot of people own horses or dogs. But to the best of my knowledge, I haven't represented anyone involved in the gaming industry."
All right, Stevie, don't have a cow. It was a simple question. And the man makes a decent case for gambling. "I recognize that it is part of the historic framework of the State of Florida," Geller explains. "It's been a good industry for the state."
He's right about the rich history. Geller's own home city, Hallandale, was a mafia gambling haven for years, with crime legends like Meyer Lansky and Al Capone running the show. Lansky used to pay public officials big money to look the other way. Crusading U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver once called Hallandale "a wide-open den of iniquity."
That's a tradition any decent public official would want to embrace. And why should the Mafia -- along with the Indian tribes -- be the only ones to profit from gambling? It's true that it's driven by the cheap and filthy dream of easy wealth and destroys lives. But shouldn't consenting adults be allowed to destroy themselves? That's the back edge of freedom, the razor-sharp side that slits our throats in the dark of night and, generally speaking, makes life interesting. Hiding from our weaknesses only makes those weaknesses stronger.
Geller and the industry he represents were smart enough, however, not to delve into the more complicated philosophical side of the debate. Instead, they draped the dirty business around the kids. Brilliant! Gambling businesses spent $7 million to pound the message home that this was all for the children. You saw those signs the pro-gambling campaigners put, um, everywhere. They said "Yes for Education and Jobs" and looked as if they'd been written in crayon by a third-grader.
You can hear it now:
Wife: Bill, it's so late -- and your eyes are all bloodshot. Tell me you haven't been back to the dog track and those machines.
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Husband: I'm afraid I have, sweet muffin of mine.
Wife: Oh my God, no. No. No. Did you lose our mortgage money again? Did you?
Husband: Yes, honey, I did. But somebody has to do it. Who else will fund our schools? Sen. Geller is sacrificing for us, snuggums. Have you heard about those horrible 15-hour plane trips he takes? We need to help too. Little Johnny will learn to read, even if I have to put us out in the street to do it.
Sen. Geller has done his part. Now we need to get out to the dog tracks and the horseraces to do ours. Play the slots. Our future depends on it.