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Casino plan for Maine rejected by wide margin

SANFORD, Maine -- In a fiercely contested vote following the most expensive campaign in Maine history, a controversial proposal to construct a mammoth, Las Vegas-backed casino suffered a lopsided defeat last night.

By 11 last night, with 68 percent of Maine's precincts counted, the plan by two Indian tribes to build a $650 million casino resort was being overwhelmingly rejected, 64 percent to 36 percent. Supporters of the proposal conceded by midevening. "It's the greatest opportunity that the state has ever seen, that has been stolen by a conglomerate of low-wage employers," said Rich Pelletier, political director for the procasino group Think About It. He referred to corporations such as L.L. Bean and the credit card company MBNA, which opposed the proposal.

The plan was trounced by voters in southern Maine, near this former textile town where the casino would have been built, and by smaller margins in central Maine cities such as Bangor, where support had been considered relatively strong.

Governor John Baldacci, who campaigned hard to defeat the binding referendum question, claimed victory shortly after polls closed at 8 p.m. "People in Maine see through all the money that came in" to campaign for the casino, "and recognized that that was not what they wanted," he said.

Maine officials had predicted a turnout that could break the record for an off-year election without statewide or national races. Brisk, steady voting at polling stations yesterday appeared to buttress that projection. Supporters of the casino argued that the gambling emporium would be an economic windfall for a cash-strapped state, while opponents contended it would be a crime-inducing nightmare that would tarnish the region's small-town character."We've been kind of beat up for 500 years," said Chief Barry Dana of the Penobscot Nation, whose members would have shared a projected $50 million to $100 million a year with the Passamaquoddy Tribe. "This has not been an issue about gaming. It's about empowering people with an opportunity." Casino foes differed emphatically. "I think this is an industry that doesn't produce anything," said Ruth Perry, after voting at a Sanford church hall. "I don't want my children and my grandchildren to get jobs there."

The proposed 362-acre resort -- which would have included 4,000 slot machines, 180 gaming tables, a grand hotel, a 60,000-square-foot convention center, and an 18-hole golf course -- had proposed to funnel 25 percent of its slot-machine revenues to the state. That payout, casino proponents said, would have amounted to $100 million in the first year and helped pay for education and municipal tax relief.

In addition, casino lobbyists were promising 4,700 permanent jobs, construction jobs for 2,000 workers, and full health and dental benefits for resort employees.

Massachusetts leaders watched the balloting closely. Senator Michael W. Morrissey, a Quincy Democrat who is cochairman of the legislative committee that oversees gaming issues, said that approval of a Maine casino would have added more pressure to the burgeoning debate over similar proposals for the Bay State. A bill filed yesterday by three Massachusetts senators would pave the way for two resort casinos and up to 1,500 slot machines at each of four racetracks.

Maine "obviously feels the same pinch we do," Morrissey said. But gambling revenue "is not stable," he added. "You never know what's going to happen." The campaign in Maine attracted more than $9 million in spending from the rival factions, with at least $6.8 million coming from Think About It, which is financed by Marnell Corrao, the company that built several Las Vegas gambling palaces.Procasino efforts attracted deep support from labor unions -- including the Teamsters, AFL-CIO, ironworkers, and shipbuilders -- who helped organize get-out-the-vote drives in much the same manner as a presidential campaign, said Pelletier. The opposition group, called Casinos No!, relied heavily on grass-roots volunteers who cited their fears of an increase in crime, gambling addiction, a rise in taxes, and what they described as false promises of secure jobs. Among those campaigning against the casino plan were state prosecutors; Baldacci's predecessor, former governor Angus King; and Olympic marathoner Joan Benoit Samuelson.

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