Selling a done deal

Mike DeBonis
District of DeBonis November 22, 2011

We live in a city whose leaders and residents have embraced the legalization of medical marijuana, needle exchange for drug addicts, and gay marriage. Except, maybe, when it comes to gun ownership, we’re a do-as-you-will type of people.

So it should come as little surprise that over the course of eight community meetings over the past two months, few city residents have stood up to lodge philosophical objections to the notion of government-sponsored online gambling.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays. View Archive

Sure, people have problems with “iGaming” — to use the gambling industry’s favored euphemism for the first-in-the-nation Internet gambling system in development for the District. But during the two ward meetings I attended — the first one, on Oct. 13 at the Lamond-Riggs library branch, and the last one, Monday night at Eastern Market — nary a soul wondered about the soul of the iGamed city.

If cards are “the devil’s tickets” in some parts of this world, they’re a ticket to easy money for many in the District of Columbia.

Some wondered about the technology. Some wanted to know where the estimated $9 million in yearly profits were going to go. Some wanted to know what was taking so long.

To quote a few:

“Nine million dollars is nine million dollars.

“There’s nothing wrong with the District being first.”

“The District needs the money.”

“It’s just as good as the lottery; it’s the same thing.”

“I’d rather gamble my money in my home town rather than driving to [Atlantic City].”

Those sentiments were not unusual. What was unusual was the timing of the meetings. They were hearings ex post facto, held to gather input on a proposal that is not a proposal at all, but rather the law of the District of Columbia. Few meeting attendees seemed to recognize that, for instance, their insistence that any revenue be dedicated to education or programs for the poor was almost altogether moot.

It was the doing of D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), who about a year ago included language in a supplemental budget bill authorizing online gambling in the District. It did not go wholly unnoticed before final passage, but mixed in as it was among a variety of other budget measures, it did not get a full public airing — as in a hearing.

Hence the series of “community meetings” held by the D.C. Lottery, where citizens were invited to weigh in on a matter that is, for all intents and purposes, a done deal. That the populace, by and large, has given online gambling its retroactive approval has made the questions about its origins more puzzling.

Why, after all, would you try to slip what appears to be a popular proposal through the back door, when the front door would have caused a lot fewer headaches?

Brown says online gambling was included in the budget because it’s budgetary — it raises money the District needs to spend on city priorities. But that explanation is belied by the relatively small amount of money it stands to raise — less than two-tenths of 1 percent of the city’s local revenues, a drop in the budgetary bucket — and the now-apparent ease with which Brown might have made iGaming law through normal channels.

The shadowy origins of iGaming have created a void into which a small band of protesters — led by Marie Drissel, a Kalorama activist, and Andy Litsky, a Southwest advisory neighborhood commissioner — have inserted a cloud of questions. What is at stake for Brown, who worked until recently at a firm with ties to the gambling industry? Or for the lottery and its contractor? Or for the gambling industry?

Here’s a few more: Why is Brown so politically invested in iGaming, appearing and answering questions at every community meeting? What’s with the strange racial politics at play, with arguments galore about how iGaming is patronized by the rich and white rather than the poor and black? Why did a band of protesters show up at Eastern Market on Monday night wearing bright yellow T-shirts criticizing council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) — perhaps the most vocal critic of the process by which iGaming became law — then refuse to answer questions about who organized them or gave them their shirts?

There’s reasonable answers to many, if not all, of these questions. Problem is, when your government gives its answers after the fact, it’s hard to put much faith in the process.

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