The debate over Miami-Dade County's slot machine proposal grew from a whisper to a shout this week, with pro-slots ads hitting the airwaves and the staunchly anti-slots former governor, Jeb Bush, finally stepping into the fray.
The initial battleground was Hialeah, where both sides held news conferences Wednesday. At the first, Bush, along with former Sen. Bob Graham and current House Speaker Marco Rubio, didn't show up in person but sent statements of support for an anti-slot-machine news conference held in front of Hialeah City Hall.
"As I did two years ago when I was governor, I am urging all of my fellow Miami-Dade residents to join me in voting no on Jan. 29 so that we may continue to protect our community and our families, " Bush wrote. "Expanded gambling will only serve to erode our traditional industries, the industries we aspire to have and our very social fabric."
The former governor, largely credited with defeating the same issue in 2005 with a weeklong blitz of his home turf, will once again fight the measure, according to Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina. Robaina said Bush will be filming ads and making calls, among other anti-slots efforts.
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"He's very adamant about doing it, " Robaina said.
Meanwhile, the current governor, Charlie Crist, declined Wednesday to take a position on the Miami-Dade slots referendum.
"I'm focused on this, " said Crist, who was spending the day campaigning in favor of the property tax amendment also on the Jan. 29 ballot. "I am trying to keep focused on what is most important to the people."
The first news conference was called by Truth for Our Community, a political committee formed by Robaina and others, in part, because the Hialeah Park racetrack was shut out of the slot machine proposal.
Robaina said that both he and the committee have now expanded the grounds for their opposition to include gambling addiction, abuse of greyhounds used for racing and skepticism about the promised economic and educational benefits from gambling taxes in Miami-Dade.
If approved, the referendum would allow Miami-Dade County's three parimutuels -- Flagler Dog Track, Miami Jai-Alai and Calder Race Course -- to install Las Vegas-style slot machines. Broward County already has slots at three dog and horse tracks.
With less than two weeks before the Jan. 29 election, both sides cranked up their efforts to sway voters, holding back-to-back news conferences Wednesday.
On the anti-slots side, former Sen. Graham issued a statement saying he is "saddened at the attempts to define our beautiful community's future as tied to a slot machine. We are better than that."
And Rubio, who campaigned against the issue with Bush in 2005, said in his statement, read by state Rep. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, that "expanding slots has not worked for Broward County and it will not work for Miami-Dade. Relying on gambling revenues to balance our budgets or fund our schools is harmful for Florida's future and for the future of our families."
Also appearing at the conference: state Rep. Stan Mayfield, a Vero Beach Republican who said he attended to support the opposition campaign.
ON THE OTHER SIDE
Slot machine proponents held their own news conference two hours later, also in Hialeah, to respond to the anti-slots campaign. The political committee Yes for a Greater Miami-Dade lined up its own political heavy-hitters: former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, former state Sen. Roberto Casas and current state Sen. Alex Villalobos.
A day earlier, the organization had released a list of 28 current and former elected officials who support the slots measure.
QUALITY OF LIFE
Meek urged voters to say yes because casinos will spur economic development that minority neighborhoods especially need.
"This is going to help everyone improve the quality of their lives . . . . Jobs, businesses -- that's what we need and that's what's going to happen, " she said.
Meek, who is being paid by the campaign as a consultant, said she's a tried-and-true fan of slot machines.
"I'm an old slots person. I like the slots and I'm old, " she said.
Proponents hope voters will look at Broward's slot experience as positive.
"This referendum is about creating jobs, much-needed tax revenue and more money for education, " said Barbara Havenick, CEO at Flagler Dog Track. "We are confident that voters will . . . vote yes to support the referendum on Jan. 29 based on facts -- not on sensationalism or scare tactics meant to sway them in the 11th hour."