What New Jersey’s Tumultuous Election Day Means For Gambling Expansion

Gov. Murphy narrowly claimed re-election, but state Senate President Sweeney was not as fortunate

It was only last week that New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy gave a third keynote luncheon address in four years to the East Coast Gaming Congress in Atlantic City, which is touted as the U.S. gambling industry’s largest annual gathering outside of Nevada.

Murphy gave this address remotely due to major flooding forecast for the northern part of the state that day, but he noted that his only “miss” during his first term was last year, when the event was canceled due to the COVID-109 pandemic.

Murphy’s continuation of the ultimately successful defense of the lawsuit filed by major sports organizations against the state’s sports betting law has made him a darling of many of those in the U.S. gambling industry, so his apparent squeaker of a win against Republican Jack Ciattarelli presumably soothed many who would prefer not to take their chances with a new governor.

As an assemblyman in 2012, Ciattarelli voted against a bill that now allows Atlantic City casinos to offer online gaming. During the height of the pandemic, when the casinos on the Boardwalk and the Marina District were shuttered for months, the casino operators continued to derive a badly needed revenue stream from a portion of the ever-growing popularity of online casino games.

Three years later, Ciattarelli voted against another bill that also passed, this one on whether to approve an “Education Initiative for Former Casino Workers to provide workplace training and readiness programs.” That came in the wake of the closure of four of Atlantic City’s 12 casinos.

A few months after that, Ciattarelli was in the minority again as he opposed a plan to establish a “payment in lieu of taxes,” or PILOT, for casinos as a way to establish a more predictable stream of dollars at a time when casinos were seeking, and winning, reductions on their property tax bills.

In 2017, Ciattarelli said he opposed a referendum on adding two casinos in the northern part of the state, but only because “there was too much ambiguity.” He then added, “I support casinos in North Jersey.”

Sweeney ousted in all-time stunner

Murphy’s race was far from the only notable one for state gambling interests.

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat from Gloucester County and the longest-serving Senate president in state history, was considered a shoo-in for another term. But Edward Durr, a truck driver and political neophyte who joked that he only spent $153 on his campaign, is now said by The Associated Press to have toppled an incumbent who is an ironworker by trade and who has tended to rule with an iron fist.

What happens with Sweeney ousted? He was widely seen as the key stumbling block against passage of a ban on smoking inside Atlantic City casinos. Murphy already has expressed his intent to sign such a bill, but with Sweeney in charge, the point had seemed moot, as he did not even permit Senate committees to hold hearings to discuss issues he opposes.

If a rumor that Sweeney would be replaced by Sen. Paul Sarlo as the chamber’s president is accurate, the Meadowlands district official would be in a strong position to market the notion of a casino in the district — something Sarlo has emphatically backed — to a potentially receptive Murphy.

Sweeney somewhat surprisingly wound up backing a 2016 ballot question on North Jersey casinos that failed by a record-breaking margin.

Other notable election results

In “The Battle of the Vinces” in the Atlantic City-area state Senate race, Republican Polistina knocked off former Assemblyman Democrat Mazzeo by a 52%-48% margin. Both men have said they back a casino smoking ban, although winner Polistina has been more vocal about it.

Of state lawmakers who have sponsored a number of gambling bills over the years, the results are a mixed bag. Sarlo and Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, an 81-year-old Democrat from Essex County and a former Atlantic City casino executive, were reelected easily. So was 74-year-old former governor and longtime state Sen. Richard Codey, a founding father of the Atlantic City casino industry.

Former Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, an openly gay Republican who unsurprisingly opposed ending his city’s statewide monopoly on casinos, earned an Assembly seat on Tuesday. Fellow Republican Ronald Dancer — son of the legendary harness racing driver Stanley Dancer and a consistent supporter of that sport — gained another term.

But Democratic Sen. Vin Gopal holds a very small lead as final votes are being counted, and Assemblyman John Burzichelli lost his race in South Jersey after serving in Trenton in that role since 2002.

Betting on NJ college sports resoundingly defeated

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the resounding 57% to 43% defeat of a ballot question on permitting gambling on sporting events involving New Jersey college teams (and on events involving out-of-state schools that take place in the state) is the consistency of the opposition across the state. All 21 counties opposed the measure, with opposition ranging from 51% to 63%.

Leading the opposition were voters in Hunterdon, Mercer, Salem, Warren, Cumberland, and Bergen counties, all with at least 60% opposition. The counties which came closest to backing the measure were Atlantic, Hudson, Essex, and Monmouth — with all checking in with below 55% opposition and Atlantic not quite a full 51%.

Former state Sen. Ray Lesniak told NJ Online Gambling on Monday that in the event of a defeat this week, he expects the same issue to be back on the 2023 ballot — and that it would win that time.

That’s because the Prudential Center in Newark is scheduled to host the March Madness East Regional in 2025, and that followup vote would be the last chance to ensure that thousands of fans flying in to support the four competing universities could place legal wagers on their games as part of their experience.

Photo: Tanya Breen/USA TODAY


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