Anti-casino veteran: It was ‘our rich guys versus theirs’

Osterberg says this campaign was different from 2003 because of a dramatic increase in spending

Rick Smith
Published: March 6 2013 | 6:05 pm - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 12:21 pm in
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MOUNT VERNON — David Osterberg of Mount Vernon is taking some comfort.

Only four of 86 polling precincts in Linn County rejected casino gambling on Tuesday; two were Mount Vernon’s precincts and another was the Linn Township precinct just to the north of Mount Vernon.

Even so, Osterberg was trying on Wednesday to sort out why Linn County voters in 2003 turned down casino gaming by 6 percentage points and why they now had approved it by a 22-percentage-point margin.

This time, he suggested, “It was our rich guys versus their rich guys. ... And maybe people decided, ‘Well, our rich guys, at least they’re closer to home.’”

Osterberg — an associate professor in the College of Public Health at the University of Iowa and the executive director of the Iowa Policy Project — was a leading anti-casino voice in Linn County in 2003 when Linn County voters turned down casino gaming, and he was a quieter voice this time, too.

This casino campaign, he said, was much different from a decade ago because of the dramatic increase in campaign spending.

In 2003, the pro-casino campaign spent about $180,000, the anti-casino one, about a third of that. This time, the spending numbers reported to date have had the pro-casino forces spending $1.5 million, the anti-casino campaign about half that amount.

With the money, both sides produced a flood of ads, portraying the other side through a single wealthy demon: The anti-casino campaign went after Cedar Rapids casino investor Steve Gray; and the pro-casino side took after Riverside Casino owner Dan Kehl, who was funding the anti-casino campaign.

“There are only so many ideas that people can have in their heads when they go in to vote,” Osterberg suggested. “And the question of whether or not the casino was really going to create very many jobs or whether or not it was good for the community, economically, that becomes less (important) than the rich-guy fight.”

Osterberg said the announcement by Kehl and the Just Say No Casino campaign last Friday that Kehl would build a $30 million water park in Cedar Rapids if Linn County residents rejected a casino seemed “like the dumbest thing in the world to do,” he said. “Because it just seemed like desperation.”

“It seemed like it might have been giving some truth to the (pro-casino) argument that our gamblers are going away and they’re going to Dan Kehl and he’ll do anything to keep them there,” Osterberg said.

For Osterberg, who believes that casino gaming benefits a few investors and hurts most of the gamblers, Tuesday’s lopsided vote in favor of casino gambling isn’t a good thing for Linn County. But he’s not moving, he said.

“I’m not sure anybody’s going to regret it,” he said of the vote. “I just think it’s one of those unmeasurables, because there is so much in economics that happens that you can’t really attribute. But I think Linn County is going to be a little worse off ... But things will be OK.”

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