The Racing Industry's Gamble
Tue February 19, 2008 1:48 pm

The ad blitz against Republican incumbents Phil King, Betty Brown, and Nathan Macias occurred as the result of a split in the horseracing community, I have learned from sources familiar with what is taking place. Racing interests have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the lack of progress toward the legalization of video lottery terminals in racetracks, despite enormous political contributions by affiliated groups. To give you an idea of the kind of money that is at stake here, Texans for Public Justice reported that investors in existing or proposed racetracks contributed $2.2 million in 2004, and horse breeders, led by Robert McNair of Houston ($664,792), ponied up another $1.4 million. Rick Perry received $682,969, David Dewhurst $657,306, Texans for Lawsuit Reform $445,958, and Tom Craddick and his Stars over Texas PAC a combined $357,060. Four years later, the horsemen have zero, zip, nada to show for their money. The issue has never even had a vote. (An Indian gaming bill did reach the House floor last session before failing on a tie vote.)

This year a faction of the horsemen’s PAC, Texans for Economic Development, decided it was time to go nuclear. This group is led by Greg LaMantia, a South Texas beer distributor with interests in racetracks in Laredo and McAllen. Behind him are a lot of smaller players in the racing community acrss the state who feel that they have been ignored by their representatives. Parker County was mentioned to me as an example; horse breeders there feel ignored by Phil King, a social conservative. A rival group led by allies of Houston racetrack operator Charles Hurwitz, who has strong ties to the state’s Republican leadership, opposed the nuclear option. At the same time, forces favorable to Tom Craddick wanted to commandeer the money raised by Texans for Economic Development to help Republican candidates. Ultimately, the LaMantia faction won the argument. Lobbyists for the racing interests were caught up in the split. I am told that they advised their client to follow the friendly incumbent rule: Be loyal to your friends. Leave your enemies alone because they might become your friends. Nevertheless, rumors swirled through the Capitol about which lobbyists were behind the attack on Republican members. Soon, various lobbyists were getting calls from Phil King and others, who had “heard” that they were behind the ads. At least one, Reggie Bashur, ended his representation of THP. On Monday, Bashur issued a statement that read:

Today I resigned from representation of the Texas Horsemen’s Partnership (THP). The Political Action Committee for Texans for Economic Development, an umbrella group for certain parts of the gaming industry, including the Partnership, has initiated advertising against three Republican state House incumbents. I strongly disagree with the strategy; have had no knowledge of it and no involvement in it.

It is possible that Texans for Economic Development may succeed in knocking off a Republican incumbent or two. But it is equally likely that what I wrote when the ads first went up will come to pass: The ads will generate a backlash against the gambling industry from social conservatives (paid for with Craddick money). In the long run, people who try to strongarm the Legislature almost always lose. You can see it happening with Rick Perry and privatization of toll roads. The horsemen’s play reminds me a lot of what James Leininger tried to do in the 2006 election cycle: spend millions of dollars to defeat a handful of candidates who were opposed to vouchers. Leininger did himself, his cause, and Tom Craddick, harm. As Will Hartnett wrote in a comment to this blog, this is “definitely a bad way to ‘Win Friends and Influence People.’” The ultimate effect will be to weaken the influence of the entire gambling lobby, racetracks and casinos, and to diminish the chance that VLT’s will become legal in Texas any time soon.

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