12/29/2009 12:00AM

Fight over slots brewing in Boston


TUCSON, Ariz. - The sight of the speaker of the Massachusetts House, powerful Robert DeLeo, out on the sidewalk in front of Macy's department store in busy Downtown Crossing in Boston last week, hustling funds for the needy along with the Salvation Army bellringers, must have startled even the unflappable Bostonians, among the most sophisticated of our breed.

When reporters and photographers showed up - surprise, surprise - DeLeo was happy to unburden himself of thoughts besides charity and philanthropy.

Among them was the subject of jobs, which he said would be his preoccupation in the session starting out the new year. And he said he would take on his governor, Deval Patrick, in a collision in the House on the issue of slots at tracks, promising to introduce a bill to that effect next month or in February.

With dog racing now among the dearly departed in Massachusetts, that leaves Suffolk Downs with the runners and Plainridge with the trotters and pacers. Both need slots for success and perhaps survival, and it is likely they would have joined DeLeo with bells and buckets if they had known what he was up to at Macy's.

Gov. Patrick, like DeLeo, was in a talkative mood with the press.

He said he had met with an anti-gambling group called United to Stop Slots in Massachusetts - try creating a clever an acronym for that one - and "the conversation confirmed in my mind that slot parlors, racinos or any form of convenience gambling is not something I can support."

Pretty convincing bunch, USSIM. Gov. Patrick said he thought it would be a good idea if DeLeo and his counterpart in the Senate, president Therese Murray, also a slots-at-tracks booster, attended one of the USSIM meetings. He apparently thought it might jolt them like an AA session for alcoholics.

Asked about this by the press, DeLeo said he saw "no deviation" from the governor's past feelings. He did, however, make a point not often heard in the political palaver about slots at racetracks. Usually the rationale for them is that gambling already is there, so it is not an expansion. But DeLeo went farther.

If Gov. Patrick prefers resort and Indian casinos to track racinos, DeLeo pointed out a big problem, rather than a solution, for the state's economic ills.

Track slots, he said, "provide a more immediate form of revenue for the commonwealth of Massachusetts, a natural progression. By the time we finish with resort casinos, it could be two, three, four, five years, maybe, for the whole process."

He added that tracks could have slot start-ups within 90 to 150 days of approval. That time advantage for existing brick and mortar operations would seem to benefit all concerned, including those suffering withdrawal symptoms from the demise of the dogs, now banished in the Bay State.

The DeLeo-Patrick debate sets the stage for political bloodshed in the Bay State in 2010. Being Boston, it reasonably can be expected that the debate will be more civil than in Washington, D.C., where hoodlum talk filled the storied halls of Congress. Boston prides itself on manners and civility. It is, after all, "the land of the bean and the cod, where the Cabots speak only to Cabots, and the Lodges speak only to God."

The British might dissent from that opinion, still smarting from the dumping of tea in what once was their harbor, the brashness of the Colonials at Lexington and Concord, and other painful memories of history.

Asked about Gov. Patrick's full conversion to opposition of "convenience gambling" by USSIM, Speaker DeLeo indicated he is ready for a brawl, civil or otherwise.

He is not the only one. The governor of Pennsylvania - where the legislature took 101 days past deadline to approve a budget and another 60 or more still counting to debate table games for casinos - told his legislative leaders that if they didn't get together and take action on the table game bill by Jan. 8, he had instructed his department heads to prepare cuts of another thousand state employees from the state payroll. That's on top of 730 or so already sent packing. Gov. Ed Rendell also said he would close state museums, parks and other places of enjoyment and entertainment. And he made clear he would let the public know who was to blame.

Jan, 8, incidentally, also is the scheduled date for another fight: the auction of Frank Stronach's Pimlico and Laurel. This one is a battle of heavyweights, with Joe De Francis, once owner of both properties, wanting them back; Penn National lusting for them; and David Cordish seeking them for his giant Cordish Companies. Three others are still in the hunt as of this writing.

Maryland handicappers think Cordish will win. As a world-class builder, he could tear down Pimlico and rebuild it as a posh racing palace, a fitting home for the Preakness. All those in favor raise your hands.