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Maine Voters Reject York County Casino Proposal

Andrew Catalina
Maine Public
Shawn Scott (left) and Louis Luchini debate Question 1 on Maine Calling in October.

For nearly two years, the York county casino campaign and international casino developer Shawn Scott have been undeterred by neither cost nor controversy. But on Tuesday, Scott, who has been roundly criticized for commercializing Maine’s citizen initiative process, ran into the one thing that could stop him: Maine voters.

Maine voters soundly rejected Question 1 at the ballot box, punctuating a campaign that began shrouded in secrecy and transformed into a feel-good initiative promising tax revenues and economic prosperity. Over that time, Scott himself emerged from his residence 11 time zones away in the Mariana Islands to become the face of the campaign.

The Associated Press called the race about an hour after the polls closed. Scott didn’t dispute the results and effectively conceded during a short speech at Bruno’s Restaurant and Tavern in Portland. He said he still believed the York project is a good one.

“This didn’t go our way, but it’s just how things work out sometimes,” he said.

Scott’s involvement — or more specifically his exclusive rights to the gambling license if Question 1 passed — was a problem for some voters.

“A big fat no,” said Old Orchard Beach resident Denise Rogers, asked how she voted Tuesday. “I’m born and raised in Old Orchard. I’ve always been advocate for gambling, casinos. But this guy … I don’t like the way it was worded, and I think next time.”

Other voters called Scott a nickname given to him by the opponents of Question 1 in political ads — Shady Shawn.

“I heard a lot about Shady Shawn. And, it’s not good,” said Sharon, another Old Orchard Beach voter who declined to provide her last name.

After secretly calling the shots from behind the scenes for a over a year, Scott appeared in television ads, participated in debates, hosted digital town halls and taped robocalls that were broadcast to potential Maine voters. His arrival appeared to some observers to be tactical, to counter the negative news coverage that has dogged the campaign.

Question 1 opponents repeatedly mentioned Scott’s long trail of litigation and licensing problems as he pursued gambling initiatives domestic and foreign.

Scott and Question 1 campaign spared no expense in attempting to change the narrative. The campaign spent over $10 million, including $4.3 million just to qualify for the ballot, making it the most expensive ballot initiative in Maine history. It spent over $3.2 million in the 11 days leading up to Election Day, plowing money into television, radio and targeted digital ads, some at the direction of Goddard Gunster, the Washington, D.C., consulting firm that last year helped convince British voters to leave the European Union.

Progress for Maine, the political action committee leading the casino effort, also took direct aim at Churchill Downs, the owner of would-be competitor Oxford Casino that funded the opposition campaign. Progress for Maine digital and television ads portrayed opponents as Kentucky billionaires seeking to block the York casino’s economic benefits in order to protect their gambling monopoly.

The message resonated with Old Orchard Beach voter Mark Gustin, who said he was intrigued by the promise of jobs and economic activity.

“It’s jobs, it’s the economy. I know it has panned out as well up in Oxford and Bangor, but I think this location would be closer to population area and you draw in some tourists and out-of-staters, as well,” he said.

But some criticized Progress for Maine’s attacks against the Oxford Casino as brazen and hypocritical.

Scott is a resident of Saipan, a U.S. territory with a reputation as a tax haven. And investigative documents released by the Maine Ethics Commission last week showed that the Question 1 campaign was revived last year by a Toko Kobayashi, an investor with holdings in Japan and Cambodia.

A Bad Deal for Maine, the lead opposition PAC funded by the Oxford Casino, was outspent 15 to 1, spending just over $660,000 to defeat Question 1, according to the most recent campaign finance reports. But Scott’s spending advantage and a team of attorneys could not halt last week’s vote by the Ethics Commission to fine four PACs controlled by his sister Lisa Scott a combined $500,000 for obscuring funding sources for over a year.

The penalty, assessed just four days before the election, is 10 times higher than the previous record fine by the commission overseeing Maine’s campaign finance laws. Attorneys for Lisa Scott have said they will appeal the decision in court.

But the ethics investigation also produced documents showing that Scott actively called the shots in the campaign while hiding his involvement.

How much the ethics investigation affected Tuesday’s outcome is unclear. But Democratic state Rep. Louis Luchini of Ellsworth, who requested the probe, said voters made the right decision rejecting Question 1.

Luchini said the ethics probe confirmed that “big out-of-state money will come in and try to buy laws.”

“It’s good to see tonight that Mainers aren’t OK with that and will vote against projects that don’t benefit us, but that are funded by out-of-state people,” he said.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.