In a win for Cuomo, voters approve casinos for New York

Casinos are coming to New York. (FreeRishad.)
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ALBANY—New York voters approved a constitutional amendment on Tuesday to allow full-fledged casinos in the state, a policy victory for Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo that will set the stage for gaming resorts in upstate areas in coming years.

The Associated Press projected the ballot referendum's passage shortly after 11:15 p.m. With 62 percent of precincts reporting, 56.5 percent of voters were in favor, while 43.5 percent were against. Most of the support came from downstate areas—the margin of victory on Long Island, where there will be no casinos, was nearly two to one—and some rural upstate areas voted against the measure, county-by-county election results show.

"The passage of Proposal One is a big win for local governments, school districts, and taxpayers across New York State," said Cuomo in a statement. "This vote will keep hundreds of millions of dollars spent each year in neighboring states right here in New York, while increasing revenue for local schools, lowering property tax taxes, and bringing proper regulation to the industry."

More than any other item on the ballot, the casino question can be seen as a reflection on Cuomo. He proposed casinos as an engine of job creation, and negotiated with legislative leaders to set parameters that might make it happen: no licenses in areas where Indian tribes have existing facilities, no casinos south of Westchester County for seven years, and a competitive process that has drawn interest from operators of existing slot parlors as well as several investors hoping to revive former Borscht-belt resorts.

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An advertising blitz, paid for by casino companies and labor unions, featured mailers and television spots, as well as a last-minute robocall with Cuomo's own voice. While he was tight-lipped about his own ballot, Cuomo did make the case for casinos after he voted in Mount Kisco today.

“He wins casinos. He wins big,” Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant, said of Cuomo. “If Astorino wins, if Suozzi doesn't win, so what.”

Steve Greenberg, a spokesman for the Siena Poll, said Cuomo's allies or enemies will spin to pin the result on him based on their disposition.

“Truthfully, I don't think it's a referendum on Cuomo whether it wins or loses,” he said. “There's no question Cuomo suffers a loss if it goes down, but we're talking about maybe 25 percent turnout statewide, and maybe half again of that voting on the propositions. This is not reflective of what's going to happen on election day a year from now.”

Indeed, the prospect of low turnout made this referendum more difficult to predict than in previous years. In 2009, voters cast 3.3 million ballots in elections around the state, but only 1.9 million logged votes for a proposed land swap in St. Lawrence County. The dynamics then were similar to now: a New York City mayoral election which was predicted to be a blowout, and several competitive elections in suburban counties. (That proposition passed, by better than two to one.)

“The New York State ballot is complicated, and it's hard to find,” Sheinkopf said of the proposals.

Several political professionals predicted it would pass, narrowly.

The opposition campaign was an ad hoc affair, but the effort was set back by a concerted denunciation by many Orthodox Jewish rabbis, whose flocks are known for voting in large blocs.

Labor unions, though, mounted a ground game to support the proposal. Ryan Delgado, public policy director for the AFL-CIO, said the labor umbrella group had 300 teams at high-volume poll sites in New York, and reminded voters to flip their ballots over and support the casino amendment as well as another aimed at allowing prospecting in the Adirondacks.

”We put the full-court press on,” said Delgado. “And we are feeling really positive.”

But perhaps the biggest difference was in the phrasing that appeared on the ballot. Polls consistently showed voters split on the question of casinos, but Cuomo's allies on the Board of Elections used wording that touted the benefits of expanded gambling: that it might create jobs, provide revenue to support education or reduce property taxes.

Polling data show this had the biggest effect in New York City, particularly among black and Latino voters. An Oct. 21 Siena survey found voters in the Big Apple were most likely to be swayed by the wording: support rose from 51-43 against to 56-40 in favor. And as the returns came in, New York City and Long Island racked up margins that made up for tepid support or small losses in upstate counties.

”The ballot language hurt us, but a lot of money was spent against us,” said Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long, who opposed the measure. “I still think it's a mistake for New York and it's going to cost taxpayers a lot of money in the long haul. We'll have to deal with the outcome.”