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Day’s departure signals change in direction for racino lobby

Briana Bierschbach//October 14, 2011

Day’s departure signals change in direction for racino lobby

Briana Bierschbach//October 14, 2011

Dick Day (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)
Horsemen will have expanded role in agenda-setting

A lot of things are changing for Dick Day.

The former Senate Republican minority leader made a legislative career out of supporting slot machines at racetracks — better known as racino — during his 19 years in the chamber. He even left the Legislature in 2009 to make an actual career out of it as the leader of newly formed Racino Now, a partnership between Canterbury Park in Shakopee and a handful of horsemen’s groups that race on its tracks. For two sessions, Day became synonymous with the effort as he tried to pass racino by attaching proceeds to any vehicle he could: the Vikings stadium, the budget deficit, and most recently, repayment of the state’s school shift. But news broke last week that Day’s two-year contract with Racino Now was up, and it was not being renewed.

Now, when asked to ruminate on the prospects for racino next session, Day says he’s not even thinking about it. “I’m staying as far away from the issue as I can,” Day said last week. “I can honestly tell you that about two months ago when I decided to get out of it, that was it. I’m doing my own thing, and they will be doing whatever they come up with. I don’t give them any advice. They will have to figure it out on their own.”

Day’s departure — which some say was in the cards since well before the contract expired — marks a key shift in strategy among racino proponents in the Legislature. As racino backers move into round two with a GOP-led Legislature and a governor who is open to expanded gambling, they will rearrange their lobbying team and focus on bringing in hesitant new members by tying racino dollars to repaying the unpopular expanded school shift that was used to patch the budget deficit and end the government shutdown in July.

The three horse groups that work with Canterbury also figure to play a more prominent role in plucking a new lead lobbyist for Racino Now, as they push back on years of lobbying that focused on only the gambling side of the racino proposal.

Day looks at life without racino

Day says he isn’t sure what issues he will be taking up next session, but he will be doing it at his own firm. He has been making calls to potential clients and said he expects to know more in late October and early November, when clients usually decide who will represent them at the Legislature the following year.

He doesn’t seem too worried about the future, despite moving away from his longtime specialty in racino. “I know my way around the Capitol, and I know the legislators,” he said. “It’s a lot different being on the outside, but I think I understand what makes a good lobbyist. We will just have to see.” Next year — a supposed nonbudget year — will see a lot more policy work, and Day is open to anything. Well, almost anything. “Everything but health care,” he said. “That would be tough for me.”

He knows a few details going into next session. His new firm will be called Day and Associates; he will be taking longtime Senate and lobbying partner Chris Johnson with him; and his home base will be in Eagan.

Canterbury Park CEO Randy Sampson insists it was Day’s decision to move on, and the organization will miss his spark at the Capitol. “He committed to this and worked his butt off year-round for two years, and when the two years were up he said he wanted to work on some other issues,” Sampson said. “It is tough for him, because he is viewed as a one-issue guy. The hard work he did on racino made it difficult for him to work on other issues.”

But people at the Capitol who are close to racino and gambling legislation say the move had been considered since as early as last spring, when the GOP legislative majorities brought dozens of new legislators. While Day’s background as Republican minority leader in the Senate gave him a leg up during the 2010 session, a whopping 16 new Republicans were elected to the chamber last fall.

“People were tiring of Dick Day,” one lobbyist close to gambling said. “At the end of the day, it didn’t get done last time. His contract was done, and this gave everyone a reason to look elsewhere. He just didn’t know a lot of the new members; he didn’t have the juice to continue on.”

Day was also known for moving independently, sometimes from other pro-racino groups like Running Aces. “Dick was great, no one would deny that, but we need to have a better-coordinated effort moving forward,” Canterbury lobbyist and RNC Committeewoman Pat Anderson said. “In the past, there were just more independent operators. There were a few more egos involved.”

Horse groups push back on past efforts

The three horse groups working with Racino Now — the Minnesota Horsemen’s Benevolent Protection Agency, the Minnesota Quarter Horse Racing Association and the Minnesota Thoroughbred Association — figure to play a more prominent role next session. In several recent meetings to appoint a replacement for Day, the horsemen’s groups have pushed back against years of focus on the gambling part of racino instead of the agricultural side, one gambling lobbyist said.

Sampson echoed that thought: “What I can say is we are looking to have the horse industry leaders take a more visible and active role. It’s more important for people to hear from the horseman industry. So many people viewed racino as strictly a gambling issue instead of an agriculture issue.”

Tying racino to job creation in the horse and agriculture industry could be a winning message in St. Paul, as Dayton and legislators situate themselves for the 2012 election. One name thrown in the mix for Day’s replacement is Quinn Cheney, who recently left the lobbying firm Solomon Strategies to start her own practice. She represented the Minnesota Horsemen’s Benevolent Protection Agency last session.

For Canterbury, lobbying efforts will mostly stay the same.

The Canterbury contract lobbying team (James Clark of the Messerli & Kramer firm, Ron and Valerie Jerich, and Pat Anderson) remains intact. Clark, a former Republican legislator, will be taking the lead on the Canterbury side. Clark spent two terms in the House representing Brown and Redwood counties in southwestern Minnesota. In addition to Canterbury, Clark represents high-profile corporate clients like Honeywell and Best Buy, and has a close relationship with House Majority Leader Matt Dean after helping the Dellwood Republican get elected in 2004.

Racino has always faced opposition from strange bedfellows at the Legislature. Slots at racetracks and other expanded gambling proposals have long been opposed by most DFLers as they work to keep outside interests from infringing on the tribal gambling monopoly. But the issue earns the ire of right-wing Republicans, too, who oppose gambling on moral grounds. As racino lobbyists look ahead, they need to clinch remaining Republican votes to score a legislative victory.
By most racino lobbyists’ account, the bill had the votes to pass during the July special session. Several Senate Republicans made a last-minute move to tie racino to the unpopular expanded school shift that was used to patch the budget deficit. Freshman Senate Republicans Jeremy Miller and Dave Brown, who were neutral on racino early on, became key advocates in using racino proceeds as a mechanism to pay back the shift over time. But the leadership did not think they had the votes required to suspend the special session rules to pass a racino, sources say.

Looking at 2012, racino lobbyists are going right back to the school shift to drum up support from legislators, especially in the House, where votes are less certain. “We had the votes to pass it,” Anderson said of the proposal. “There just wasn’t enough time.”

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