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Joan Vennochi

Senator Slots Brown

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / July 8, 2010

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SENATOR SCOTT Brown opposed hundreds of millions in federal aid for Massachusetts and the extension of jobless benefits, because fellow Republicans in Washington consider it a handout. But he is not against all handouts.

During a recent meeting with Governor Deval Patrick and House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Brown reportedly made a personal pitch for slot machines at the Plainville track owned by his friend, Gary Piontkowski. Patrick invited Brown to Beacon Hill to seek his support for some $686 million in Medicaid funds that state leaders needed to help balance the budget. According to people with knowledge of the conversation, Brown used the opportunity to raise the slots issue.

Gail Gitcho, Brown’s spokesperson, declined comment on what happened “at a private meeting.’’ Brown, she said, “has been a supporter of the initiative at the state level. Now, as a US senator, he believes the state should handle it.’’

Brown is a longtime advocate of slots at tracks, and specifically at the Plainridge Racecourse, which is located in his old state Senate district. Assorted media reports routinely describe Piontkowski, who attended Brown’s swearing-in, as a family friend. According to harnessracing.com, in 2008, Piontkowski “convinced’’ Brown’s daughter, Arianna, “to become a partner in an 8-year-old Ohio-bred trotting mare named Sugar Free.’’ Piontkowski has since sold his interest in the horse, which “won seven times and more than $18,000,’’ according to a February 2010 harnessracing.com article.

The senator is picking his way through a myriad of tough political votes in Washington. His advocacy on behalf of Piontkowski, which occurred last month, puts him in the middle of a strictly local issue.

Massachusetts is as close as it has ever come to legalizing casinos, slot parlors or both.

A legislative conference committee was named this week to settle differences between House and Senate versions of proposed legislation. DeLeo is a strong advocate for slots, and the House-approved bill would allow two casinos anywhere in the state and 750 slot machines at each of the state’s four racetracks. The Senate bill calls for three casinos, and no slots.

Patrick and Senate President Therese Murray both support destination casinos, but not so-called racinos — race tracks with slot machines. Now, it remains to be seen if their opposition is a moral line in the sand, or a political bartering chip. Appearing on a morning radio show with WTTK’s Jim Braude and Margery Eagan, Patrick repeated his concern that Massachusetts would not get “the highest possible benefits’’ from slots at tracks, and suggested that awarding slots to a track amounted to a “no-bid contract.’’

Track owners argue that slots are needed to save jobs and keep their industry afloat and the six-member conference committee seems to tilt toward that perspective. The panel includes Democratic Representative Kathi-Anne Reinstein of Revere, an advocate for Wonderland and Suffolk Downs, and Senator Richard Ross, the Republican who won Brown’s state Senate seat after Brown’s special election victory last January.

The last time expanded gambling came up on Beacon Hill, the Patrick administration believed Ross, then a state representative, would give their casino proposal a favorable vote out of committee. Instead, at the last minute, Ross told Patrick aides he couldn’t back it. During a subsequent telephone conversation with Piontkowski that took place via speaker phone, Piontkowski reportedly said, “I’m not going to let Richard Ross vote for this.’’ Piontkowski, who hosted a fundraiser for Ross during his recent campaign, did not return a call seeking comment.

In Massachusetts, Brown has come under increasing pressure for continuing to block unemployment benefit extensions and other federal aid. In response, he introduced legislation that would use federal stimulus funding to pay for the unemployment assistance, as well as fund summer jobs and provide additional Medicaid funding. His math may be fuzzy, but his purpose is clear: to quell the hometown criticism — basically from Democrats — that he is overlooking the interests of Massachusetts residents in order to placate conservatives at the national level.

With slots, he is backing the interests of one very specific Bay State resident in a very direct way.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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