If there is one thing Donald Trump loves more than flattery, it is money. And of all of the Republican lickspittles who see themselves as the Republican nominee for President in 2024 should Trump not run — Hawley, Cruz, Rubio, Haley, Pence — only one has figured out a way to give Trump money, and a lot of it: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The source? Gambling, or rather gaming, as those who would sanitize the practice prefer to call it.
The swelling river of cash flowing from gaming in Florida began as a tiny trickle on Nov. 4, 1981, when deputies from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office raided a penny ante poker game at the Ranchero Village trailer park in Largo, and arrested eight desperados ranging in age from 63 to 71, who became known as the Largo Eight. Responding to the resulting public outrage, the Legislature created a tiny crack in Florida’s anti-gaming dam by legalizing poker games in private residences with aggregate per hand pots of no more than $10.
In the intervening 40 years, that crack has grown larger and larger under the hydraulic pressure produced by big money mixed with louche politics, culminating this month in the rushed ratification by the Legislature in a three-day special session of a 30-year gaming compact between the state and the Seminole Tribe. The deal allows full-tilt boogie casino gambling on tribal lands and sports betting administered by the tribe at licensed parimutuel facilities around the state, where poker rooms are already permitted, as are slot machines in Broward and Dade county parimutuel venues.
Space does not permit even a cursory overview of the convoluted events that led from pennies on a felt covered table in Ranchero Village 40 years ago to the billions of dollars coursing through the Hard Rock Seminole casinos today. But there has been one constant: the implacable opposition of the people of Florida to casino gaming generally.
Proposed amendments to the constitution that would have permitted casino gambling failed by wide margins in 1978, 1986 and 1994. In case the message was not clear, in 2018, 71.5 percent of voters approved a ballot initiative known as Amendment 3. That constitutional amendment prohibits any expansion of gaming in Florida outside of Indian lands without voter approval, which the new compact apparently does by sanctioning sports betting on my iPhone, even though it has never been, and is unlikely to be, inside a Seminole casino.
Amendment 3, plus the applicable provisions of federal law, make it doubtful the compact will pass legal muster, which the chairman of the House Select Committee on Gaming candidly admitted. There is no public clamor for casino gaming. And the state, which is awash in COVID relief money, is not strapped for cash. So why the hurry to make such a mess?
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The answer may be portability. The sine qua non of the compact for the Seminoles is gaming exclusivity, including the ability to say yea or nay to the transfer of existing slot machine licenses to any location within 100 miles of a Seminole casino, with one exception: the Hard Rock casino at Hollywood in Broward County, where the radius of the circle of exclusivity with respect to the portability of slot licenses is a scant 15 miles.
Curiously, no one can remember how the anomalous Hollywood circle of exclusivity and portability came to be, but it has not gone unnoticed that the money losing Trump Doral, which Eric Trump described in March as a perfect location for destination gaming, lies barely beyond the 15 mile limit. The same is true for the Fountainebleu Hotel owned by Jeffrey Soffer, a major DeSantis donor who has long sought slots and poker at his Miami Beach resort.
There are other curious occurrences that would require industrial strength naïveté to ascribe to coincidence. Miriam Adelman of Las Vegas gaming royalty, whose recently deceased husband was another big dollar DeSantis donor, was in Tallahassee just prior to the special session, perhaps to see the dogwoods in bloom or perhaps to talk business. And before Senate President Wilton Simpson even gaveled the Senate to order to consider the compact, Trump endorsed him for Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, a 2022 race he has not yet entered.
Jesse Unruh, former Speaker of the California State Assembly, famously said, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” Ron DeSantis Got Milk, some for him and some for Trump. His putative 2024 rivals, not so much.
Mac Stipanovich was chief of staff to former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez and a longtime Republican strategist who is currently registered No Party Affiliation.