Wednesday, July 2, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Rep. Shelley Berkley was poised by a main door to the House chamber last week as representatives began filing in for a vote on a Michigan gaming bill, handing out pink fliers as if she were running for student body president.
Her printouts contained arguments against the gaming bill and came with a verbal admonition: Vote no.
One lawmaker, on his way out, remarked to her: What are you still standing here for? You won it.
Berkley swirled around to read the vote tally on the electronic board. The bill was being handily defeated.
Nevada’s three House members had worked tirelessly to defeat the bill, which most Nevadans probably have never heard of because it involved a tribal land dispute three time zones away.
Berkley and Republican Reps. Jon Porter and Dean Heller mounted a methodical three-pronged attack on the legislation, which would have given two Michigan tribes suburban land and casino rights in exchange for settling long-running property claims elsewhere in the state.
The Nevada lawmakers’ stunningly lopsided victory, against a bill backed by the one of the most powerful Democrats in the House, took even old hands by surprise. It shows not only the strange bedfellows politics makes, but also the far-flung efforts Nevada’s representatives undertake on behalf of the home-state industry as gaming interests spread across the country.
MGM Mirage, Nevada’s largest employer, has a $1 billion-plus stake in Detroit. It just opened a hotel alongside its casino. Believing additional casinos would be limited, the gaming giant was not pleased with the prospect of unexpected competition from new tribal casinos just a short drive away in the Detroit suburbs.
Nevada’s lawmakers were not about to sit idly by. The coalition they forged to defeat the bill included an unlikely alliance of anti-gambling crusaders, the hotel union, religious conservatives and the Congressional Black Caucus.
So strange were the friendships formed that MGM even helped fund an anti-gaming group in Michigan, Gambling Watch, that warned families against the dangers of casinos in their communities.
Opponents argued that the legislation would create an unchecked expansion of tribal gaming by skirting federal tribal gaming law and giving Congress the power to determine new casino sites.
MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman praised the coalition’s work and shrugged off the oddity of partnering with anti-gamers as business in Washington.
“Whenever you deal in complex issues, you have a coalition to build,” Feldman said. “There is no question there were people who voted on this for reasons that were different from ours. I suspect that’s true of any bill that comes before Congress.”
The Nevada delegation turned its attention months ago to what was then a pair of bills — one dealing with land in Romulus, a suburb close to the MGM casino in Detroit, and the other with Port Huron, a town not far away with an unemployment rate among the highest in the nation, where most local officials and residents want a casino for its jobs.
Heller tried to derail the bills in February when he served on the Natural Resources Committee by offering two amendments. But as a freshman in the minority, on a committee whose members overwhelmingly supported the legislation, he could do only so much. The amendments failed. The legislation proceeded.
The bills moved to the Judiciary Committee, and were shot down. The rift in the Michigan delegation became clear. Powerful Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. John Conyers opposed the bill, as did several other influential Michigan lawmakers.
Still, Michigan’s governor, its two senators and various representatives supported the bill. Powerful Democratic Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the 81-year-old “dean of the House,” who has served a half-century in Congress, wanted a vote.
For weeks, Porter had been lobbying his colleagues against the bill. He signed his name to a bipartisan letter signed by dozens of lawmakers (including Heller and Berkley) against the bill.
Berkley had been just as fastidiously working her side of the aisle. Every day her staff sent her to work with a list of Democratic lawmakers to lobby against the bill. One by one she had been pressing her case.
Heller was tasked with working on his fellow freshmen.
Then in mid-June, the powerful United Auto Workers, a longtime ally of Dingell’s, announced its support. Labor-friendly Democrats would be reluctant to cross the Dingell-autoworker alliance.
“I thought it was all over but the shouting,” Berkley recalled. Her side needed a counterweight. She called her own labor allies at Unite Here, whose Culinary Union on the Strip is its largest affiliate. Unite Here opposed the bill, and would say so publicly.
As the floor vote neared, Heller considered another attempt to amend the bill.
The vote was set for last Wednesday.
That morning, the Democratic whip’s office distributed the daily lineup and Berkley was furious. It encouraged a “yes” vote.
“We went ballistic,” she said. A subsequent notice was sent with a neutral position.
As it came to the floor, Porter came three votes shy of blocking the legislation on a procedural move.
Berkley’s pink fliers offered a final line of defense.
As voting began, a Democratic leader approached her on the House floor for an assessment. She said her side was going to win. “He said, ‘Well, Dingell thinks he’s going to win it, too,’ ” Berkley recalled.
But as it became increasingly clear he was losing, Dingell released those who had pledged support.
The final tally: 121-298.
Berkley said one of the lobbyists from the other side, a neighbor, knocked on her door later that night to congratulate her on the unlikely win.
“I’ve learned that this is the nature of the business here,” she said. “You just never know who your allies are going to be.”