All bets are off
Bill to bring casino to Port Huron falls in House
By MIKE CONNELL
Corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff may be locked in a prison cell, but he still received credit Wednesday for the crushing defeat of the Port Huron and Romulus casino bills.
The House rejected the combined measures by a surprisingly lopsided vote of 298 to 121.
Casino developer Mike Malik blamed the setback on "the actions of people who hired Abramoff to stop us originally and who have continued to expand on Abramoff's tactics. They were successful. They did it in ways that someone should investigate."
Abramoff, a former lobbyist who was at the center of a massive Washington corruption scandal, helped block earlier Port Huron bills on behalf of the Saginaw Chippewa, who paid him more than $14million. He now is serving a 70-month term in federal prison.
Malik, a former Algonac councilman, has worked closely with Detroit businesswoman Marian Ilitch on casino developments. He has been trying to open a casino in Port Huron for more than 15 years.
The Saginaw Chippewa and casino giant MGM Mirage have spent freely to block him. The Saginaw Chippewa operate the state's largest casino in Mount Pleasant, while Malik said MGM's Grand Detroit casino hotel earned a record $50 million last month alone.
"They're not going to let their prized golden goose get hurt," he said. "They're drinking champagne at MGM tonight while the people in Port Huron cannot even afford to drink a pop."
The Port Huron bill would have paved the way for the Bay Mills Chippewa of the Upper Peninsula to open a casino at either Desmond Landing or the Thomas Edison Inn.
"I don't know where we go from here," said Malik, who was hired by Bay Mills to shepherd the project. "The other side has outright lied at every turn. ... It's a great loss to the state of Michigan and the city of Port Huron. There are and were great plans to hire thousands of people. Everybody should be outraged."
Tomion: 'I feel naïve'
City Manager Karl Tomion shared Malik's sense of outrage and disappointment.
"I have to confess I just didn't see this coming," he said. "I knew there were Detroit and Nevada interests that were spending millions of dollars on false information, but I thought our cause was so just we would prevail. I feel naïve."
Detroit's political leaders, including embattled Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his mother, Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick, led the fight against Port Huron.
Tomion expressed dismay with their efforts, noting Port Huron and St. Clair County voters overwhelmingly supported a statewide referendum 15 years ago that let Detroit compete with a casino across the border in Windsor. Port Huron was looking for a similar opportunity to compete with two gaming facilities across the river in Point Edward and Sarnia.
"For them to work so hard against us is very disappointing when we're in exactly the same position as they were," Tomion said. "I'm disappointed in our political process. Whatever happened to doing what is right?"
Malik echoed that criticism. "The city of Detroit believes they are the only group in the state that deserves to have everything their way. They believe all benefits should be their benefits, and that all development should be their development. They always want help, but they never offer help."
He also singled out Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Brighton, as leading behind-the-scenes effort to defeat the bills.
"Mike Rogers worked harder against our cause than anyone else," he said. "Why does Mike Rogers from Brighton and East Lansing care so much about Port Huron? Why is he so aligned to MGM and Ietan (a lobbying firm)? He is the biggest hypocrite on Capitol Hill."
Miller fights for city
Malik and Tomion praised Rep. Candice Miller for her staunch support of the casino effort.
"I think it's important to note how hard Candice Miller and her staff worked," Tomion said. "They have been with us every step of the way."
In the floor debate, Miller gave an eloquent 8½-minute speech in which she addressed many of the opposition's arguments.
"I think it's important to note these bills are supported by every elected official who represents the city of Port Huron," she said, listing herself, both U.S. senators, the past two governors, the legislative delegation, the county board and the city council.
City voters gave their blessing, she noted, as did civic groups, labor unions, educational leaders and "every law enforcement official" in the county, including the sheriff, the prosecutor and police chiefs.
In a passionate appeal, she said "our beautiful state" has the nation's highest unemployment rate, lowest income growth, highest foreclosure rate and highest exodus of young people. Port Huron, she noted, has a jobless rate of 14% to 16%, making it one of the bleakest spots in North America for job-seekers.
She pointed to a photograph of Point Edward's casino and noted it was only 282 yards across the river from Port Huron. "And if you were a very good golfer, maybe not me, but a good golfer could hit a golf ball and hit that Canadian casino facility right now where 80% of the revenues comes from America," she said. "Those dollars should be spent in an American casino to create American jobs."
Big money prevails
Dick Cummings, president of the Michigan Machinists union and a leader of casino efforts, said he believed the floor debate was won convincingly by Miller and others who spoke in favor of the bills, including Nick Rahall, D-W.Va.; Don Young, R-Alaska; Bart Stupak, D-Menominee; Dale Kildee, D-Flint; and John Dingell, D-Dearborn.
"If you truly watched the debate, our side was above board and honest," he said. "It's pretty obvious that the people down there in Congress went with the big money and don't care much about Hometown U.S.A."
Cummings expressed surprise the margin of defeat was so large -- 177 votes.
"I was cautiously optimistic because we had the right arguments on our side," he said. "It was the difference between right and wrong, and wrong won."
Cliff Schrader, a Times Herald columnist and a member of the Thomas Edison Inn Casino Advisory Committee, said it seemed clear House members had made up their minds before the debate even began.
"It's clear this community has been tossed under the bus by Washington," he said. "I think it's over. It's very disheartening."
City can't surrender
Mayor Brian Moeller shared the disappointment of other local leaders, but said the community cannot surrender.
"We need to have something that's a major draw, whether it's a casino or something else," he said. "Tourism is our hope for the future, especially with the price of gas what it is. People from the metropolitan area are going to be looking for shorter trips. They won't be going to Mackinaw City as often as they used to. We have to have something major to draw them here, whether it's a water park, a large aquarium or something else."
He suggested the city might explore possibilities such as reconstructing Fort St. Joseph, built by the French in 1686, or Fort Gratiot, built as an American frontier post during the War of 1812.
"We have a beautiful river and lake," he said. "We have great sporting opportunities with the fishing and boating. If we can find one thing we can cash in on, I think people will come. It would seem we've hit a dead end as far as the casino goes, but we need to keep looking."