Anti-casino 'swiftboating' helped sink Passamaquoddy racino

PASSAMAQUODDY, Maine - The Passamaquoddy Tribe's recent racino proposal was narrowly defeated at a referendum after an anti-Indian casino group launched a last-minute campaign of negative television ads created by the same media firm the Swift Boat Veterans used to sink Sen. John Kerry's presidential bid in 2004.

Casinos No! paid media consultants Stevens, Reed, Curcio and Potholm of Alexandria, Va., almost $195,000 during the last 10 days before the Nov. 6 statewide referendum for ''production costs'' and ''media buys,'' according to the Maine Ethics Commission.

In 2003, Casinos No! mounted a successful opposition campaign to a proposal for an Indian-owned casino in southern Maine, while not opposing a non-Indian out-of-state-owned racino - Hollywood Slots - in Bangor.

SRCP makes political ads for Republican politicians. Its ads for the group Swift Boat Veterans For Truth was called the ''most effective'' advertising of the 2004 presidential election, according to Source Watch, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy. The ads became notorious, however, after the credibility of Swift Boat Veterans For Truth was challenged for making misleading, false or inconsistent statements. The campaign brought a new colloquialism into the language: ''swiftboating'' has become synonymous with ad campaigns that use misinformation, character assassination and smear tactics.

It is not clear how Casinos No! connected with SRCP, although the company does have Maine roots. Erik Potholm, a partner in the company, is the son of Chris Potholm, a professor of government at Maine's Bowdoin College.

Neither Casinos No! nor Chris Potholm responded to e-mails seeking comment. Erik Potholm did not return a phone call seeking comment.

The tribe's racino bid was defeated by a slim 8,000-vote margin on a voter turnout of less that 30 percent. The vote was 142,347 to 130,056 when 99 percent of the votes had been counted.

The defeat was devastating to the tribe, Chief Rick Doyle said.

''We're still hurting from last night,'' Doyle told Indian Country Today the day after the vote. ''We'll take a little time and absorb what happened and then get together with the council and look at our options. We're not going to give up. It's just going to take some time before we go and offer something else to the public.''

The tribe had many reasons to believe the vote would pass.

''We were surprised by the result. We went in there thinking that we made a considerable effort both of our time and our resources. We talked to everyone all over the state. We had all kinds of diverse groups supporting us, from the state's largest newspaper to religious groups to unions and non-unions. Everyone was coming out publicly in favor of us: and then we lose,'' Doyle said.

Doyle and other tribal members attributed the defeat to a number of factors in addition to Casinos No!'s negative ads, including low voter turnout because of heavy rain, no candidate elections, and Maine's lingering anti-Indian racism.

''I was reading the local papers online where they have people's comments and they were gloating [at our defeat] up in the Bangor area. We've been called uneducated Indians. We've been called incapable,'' Doyle said.

Donna Loring, the legislative representative for the Penobscot Indian Tribe, believes ''there's more than meets the eye'' about the racino campaign.

''Why did a former member of the gaming commission show up in TV ads at the last minute?'' Loring asked, referring to a Casinos No! ad featuring Mike Peters, former Maine Gambling Control Board member.

In the ad, Peters says, ''I served on the Maine Gambling Control Board, but I resigned so I could talk about what I saw. Millions of dollars from the Bangor casino are going to off-track betting parlors and other gambling interests with no accountability. The corporate owner made millions last year while Bangor's share was a drop in the bucket.''

The figure $320,000 appears in the background, implying that was the ''drop in the bucket'' Bangor received last year, but according to the Gambling Control Board, the city receives approximately that amount each month.

''If the commission was so badly managing things, as Peters alleged, why didn't he call for an investigation immediately?'' Loring asked.

''The sad thing is that this person planned this for months. He resigned from the commission to take this position on the racino bill. His real purpose was to sabotage the Washington County racino vote,'' Loring said.

Peters never complained of any wrongdoing while he was on the board, said Bob Welch, the Gambling Control Board's executive director.

''I took exception to the claim that things were out of control, because I don't believe that to be the case at all,'' Welch said.

The board's procedures are put together under the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, the state's auditing bureau, comptroller's office and budget bureau.

''Nothing is out of control. Every rule, every regulation, every procedure we have has been reviewed by the proper state authorities and they are all fine with it,'' Welch said.

In his April 2007 letter of resignation to Gov. John Baldacci, Peters says he no longer wishes ''to attend Gambling Control Board meetings on an interim basis ... I have no interest in being reappointed under status quo circumstances.''

Peters warned Baldacci in the letter that ''grave harm'' would result if gaming was expanded beyond the current Hollywood Slots racino.

Baldacci has vetoed every gaming proposal that has come his way.

Despite his stated opposition to gaming, Peters remains a member of the Maine State Lottery Commission. He could not be reached for comment.