Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011 | 2 a.m.
When it comes to reviving the economy in Nevada, politicians of different stripes hawk different solutions.
Democrats say the future is in green energy. Republicans advocate loosening regulations on mining permits. But both parties in this state agree that one of the biggest potential employment engines is legalizing online poker: Do that and, as Sen. Harry Reid once put it, you’ll create “jobs, and lots of jobs.”
Nevada’s front-runner in the Republican race for the presidential nomination, however, isn’t yet sure.
“I haven’t come down on online poker,” Romney said in an interview with the Sun last month, explaining he had yet to take a serious look at the issue.
But then he did something most politicians don’t: He voluntarily offered a promise, and a timeline, to deliver a more specific answer.
“I will, and I’ll give you an answer,” he continued. “Before the caucuses come along, I’ll give you an answer on that.”
The pledge sets up a potentially thorny decision for Romney: Say you’re against legalizing and regulating the online poker industry, and you risk upsetting some Nevadans; say you’re for it, and you risk upsetting the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Romney’s Mormon faith has stirred headlines elsewhere in the country, but in Nevada, there’s never really been any fault lines between Romney’s politics and his personal faith.
“Romney does not talk about it ... and I don’t think Nevadans cared. Being a Mormon isn’t that much of an issue in Nevada or anywhere in the West, for that matter,” said Eric Herzik, professor of political science at UNR. “Mormonism is a longtime part of Western society.”
If anything, it’s helped Romney. He won 95 percent of the local Mormon vote in the 2008 caucuses, and the strong Latter-day Saint turnout to the poorly attended caucuses helped catapult him to a victory with 51 percent of the overall vote.
But the church takes a stand against its adherents participating in gambling, and has opposed its legalization.
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is opposed to gambling, including lotteries sponsored by governments,” the church states on its website. “Church leaders have encouraged Church members to join with others in opposing the legalization and government sponsorship of any form of gambling.”
It’s a stance that several Mormon politicians in Nevada have wrestled.
Most — including both of Nevada’s senators, Reid and Dean Heller — have come to the personal conclusion that there is a simple way to reconcile the teachings of their religion with the state’s biggest industry.
“As a church member and a legislator, I’m bound to follow the law,” said state Sen. Moises “Mo” Denis, a Mormon who supports the federal proposal to legalize online poker. “You could advocate for eliminating gaming altogether. But we already have gaming in Nevada. And we already regulate everything else. So the issue is more about fairness.
“For example, I don’t drink, and yet we regulate alcohol,” he continued. “Online poker is occurring currently; the question is whether we regulate it or not ... it’s just like any other regulation.”
Regulation is what poker lobbyist John Pappas, executive director of the Poker Players Alliance, says he focuses on — instead of arguments about the money there is to be made through a legalization — when he meets with lawmakers who have a moral or religious objection to the idea, Mormon or otherwise.
“Those who take this from a moral standpoint — really the best approach in dealing with them has nothing to do with revenue. Because the money gotten from an activity that they deem to be immoral would be ill-gotten money,” Pappas explained. “The better arguments in those cases are really those that center on consumer protection. ... Is society better off if it is regulated, or if you continue to operate in a quasi-black market? We believe that through regulation, you can mitigate all those societal concerns.”
But Pappas admits, that argument doesn’t convince everybody — especially those who don’t live with gambling as a day-to-day reality like Nevadans do.
Despite his popularity in the Silver State, Romney has no familial foothold in Nevada. But he’s been able to draw the line between personal convictions and public politics on the issue before.
While members of Romney’s family have interpreted the church’s prohibition on involvement in gambling very strictly — his oldest son, Tagg, said in a Brigham Young University interview last year that he once recused himself from working with a client that ran state lotteries because “as a member of the Church ... I didn’t want to feel like my talents were being used to further interests in gambling” — Romney himself didn’t move to dismantle or shrink the popular state lottery when he was governor of Massachusetts; he factored in gambling revenue as part of his budget proposals.
“This is not an either-or issue for Mormons,” Herzik said, adding that if Romney does in the end come out against online poker “it could hurt him a little bit, but I don’t think it hurts him more or less with Mormons than it does more or less with the average Nevadan. The only way for that argument to work is if Mormons are against gambling and do not work in the gaming industry in Nevada. And I don’t think that’s a true statement.”
But some Republican strategists think there’s a better way around the question: just avoid it.
The president is not the critical policymaker when it comes to online gambling — legalization and regulation of the industry are first and foremost, congressional issues, and ones that Nevadans certainly hope will be resolved before the next presidential term, whoever is in office.
If and when Congress comes to a resolution on Internet poker — and it may not happen by the end of 2012 — the president still has to sign such a bill into law.
But Nevada Republican strategist Sig Rogich — unaffiliated in the GOP presidential primary — said that if he were advising Romney, he’d encourage him to simply cross that bridge when he comes to it, even if he did make a promise to deliver his policy position on the online poker issue in the next few months.
“I think he finds a way out of it,” Rogich said. “You have over 40 states with legalized gaming; it’s not going to be out of the realm of possibility to think that before long, every state in America is going to have gaming, so there has to be some room for adaptability, just like there was with the Southern Baptists.
“I’d be surprised if he takes any big decision ... but I don’t think it would change much in Nevada,” Rogich continued. “I still think it’s his to lose.”