SOUTH PORTLAND – Plans to build a $650 million Indian casino in southern Maine met a decisive defeat Tuesday as voters turned out in force to oppose the project, thus putting a swift end to the costliest and one of the most contentious campaigns in the state’s history.
Even before the first vote was counted, CasinosNo! spokesman Dennis Bailey reveled in the results of his group’s early exit polling, which showed the casino question headed for defeat by a better than 2-to-1 ratio.
“It’s too good, I almost don’t believe it,” Bailey said outside a nearly empty ballroom at the South Portland Sheraton, which was soon to be filled with Bailey’s fellow casino opponents, including Gov. John Baldacci and former Gov. Angus King, a sampling of the high powered political opposition facing the plan.
With more than 88 percent of the state’s 649 voting precincts reporting, Bailey’s predictions came to fruition, and then some, with better than 66 percent of Maine voters opposed to the project.
“This says ‘no way’ when it comes to casino gambling in the state,” Baldacci later said as the anti-casino movement prevailed in nearly every Maine city and town, including Sanford, the project’s likely destination, where voters defeated the measure 61 percent to 39 percent. “The vote was very clear.”
While, to casino opponents, the decisive vote sent a clear message, the Las Vegas developer interested in building the Maine casino, which promised thousands of jobs, said it was a mixed message.
“[Maine voters] passed up a once in a generation opportunity to compete at the highest level,” said Jay Barrett, treasurer of Marnell Corrao Associates, the Las Vegas development company that bankrolled the $7 million campaign for the pro-casino political action committee Think About It. “But Maine voters also have an open mind so there could be another day.”
But Barrett, who has a summer home in Maine, said that the timing of any future project was of the essence.
“Now was perfect. Later may not be,” he added.
The initiative would have allowed the Penobscot Nation and Passamaquoddy Tribe to open a casino resort if part of the proceeds, estimated at $100 million, went to the state.
The contentious campaign, which was played out in large part through television advertising, did appear to bring people out to the polls, based on early returns, with nearly 55 percent voter turnout, nearly 10 percent better than the best recorded turnout for an off-year election.
Bailey, who became one of the public faces and voices for the formidable anti-casino movement, had little sympathy for casino supporters, more than 200 of whom gathered at a Sanford tavern near the proposed site of the increasingly unlikely resort complex.
“I’d hate to be at Hootenanny’s tonight,” he said.
Later in the evening at Hootenanny’s Roadside Tavern, Erin Lehane, Think About It’s spokeswoman, reserved comment on the results until more votes were counted.
“We are proud of this campaign and proud of the people that we brought together across this state,” said Lehane, who, although defeat was imminent, led the generally upbeat crowd at Hootenanny’s in a “chicken dance.”
Voters in Old Town, located just across the Penobscot River from Indian Island, the Penobscot Nation’s reservation, also defeated the plan.
“It was a little bit too shady for me,” said 29-year-old Carey Sheehan, who, like many others interviewed outside the polls earlier Tuesday, said that while she opposed the Indian-owned project, she supported Question 2, an initiative that would allow slot machines at the state’s two harness racing tracks in Bangor and Scarborough. As of press time early Wednesday morning, voters appeared to favor Question 2 53 percent to 46 percent.
But not everyone was opposed to the casino, with several people saying the state shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to bring in a successful business and the revenue that comes with it.
“If someone wants to come in here and spend their money that way, that’s part of their freedom,” said Adele Ames, 55, after coming out of the Old Town lodge. “And if some developer wants to come in here and spend $600 million and give some of the revenue to the state, that’s part of their freedom, too. Plus, the state could use that money.”