‘The Easiest Targets’: How Whitmer Opponents Wield Detroit’s Casino Reopenings Against The Governor

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What do gym owners in Royal Oak, Michigan’s Republican Speaker of the House, the top Democrat in Macomb County, and Michigan’s schmaltz laureate Mitch Albom have in common?

They’ve all criticized Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s management of the state’s economic restart by highlighting Whitmer’s decision to allow Detroit’s commercial casinos to reopen before other businesses, as Michigan attempts to return to normalcy amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

MGM Grand Detroit, MotorCity Casino Hotel, and Greektown Casino-Hotel were forced to close March 16, along with other non-essential businesses, to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. In late July, Whitmer signed an executive order permitting the casinos to reopen Aug. 5 while operating at 15% capacity and following rigorous safety protocols. Meanwhile, other businesses, such as gyms, bowling alleys, fitness centers, and movie theaters remained closed, per Whitmer’s orders, and indoor service at bars remained prohibited.

Casino Complaints

“When we heard about the casinos reopening, that was a punch in the gut for sure,” said Alyssa Tushman, co-chair of the Michigan Fitness Club Association, in Crain’s Detroit Business. “We don’t really understand why they are reopen and we aren’t.”

Scott Marcus, Michigan’s franchise developer for Orangetheory Fitness, called Whitmer’s order “outrageous” and “unconscionable.” He told Crain’s: “To legitimize the opening of casinos versus fitness facilities makes no sense at all socially or medically. … Clearly, the casino lobbyists are much stronger than those of the fitness owners.”

On July 30, House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) questioned the governor’s decision to reopen Detroit’s casinos while increasing restrictions on parts of Northern Michigan in the same executive order:

Earlier this month, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, a Democrat like Whitmer, voiced support for a Republican-backed petition aimed at repealing the 1945 law that Whitmer has used to continue extending her emergency powers since first declaring a state of emergency on March 10. “If this is still a crisis, why would we let casinos open?” Hackel said in the Detroit News.

Even the Detroit Free Press‘s Mitch Albom, bestselling author of Tuesdays with Morrie, joined the casino pile-on in a column arguing for the reopening of movie theaters. “Since the act of watching a movie is generally a sit-still-for-2-hours activity,” Albom wrote, “there’s far less chance of interaction, even casual, than at a restaurant, bar or casino.”

Since the initial complaints, gyms have been permitted to reopen, but movie theaters remain closed. During a September press conference, Whitmer explained why casinos had been allowed to open before other businesses. “I think the appropriate response is that what we have seen in terms of gaming in Michigan — our tribal nations have been open for gaming much longer than the three Detroit casinos,” she said. “They are sovereign nations and they are able to do that. We’ve worked very closely with them, and we’ve been learning from and sharing information and lending support, when necessary. The fact of the matter is that they’ve been reengaged in a way that we’ve not seen a big outbreak. So working with the Detroit three casinos, recognizing that 15% is a very small number when you consider how many people are in the casinos. But we thought that that was an appropriate step to take because we’ve seen in practice that it can be done safely.”

Casinos as “Bogeyman”

Why have the Detroit casinos been such a frequent whipping boy for Whitmer’s detractors?

“To the constituency Republicans are playing to, it makes a lot of sense to use casinos as a bogeyman and to say the governor is opening this while we have mom and pops on Main Street struggling to open,” said Dennis Darnoi, a GOP strategist from Farmington Hills. “Theaters run by longtime, generational owners and are not even allowed to open. So, the casinos serve as a good foil in painting a picture that the governor is choosing winners and losers.”

Whether or not it’s fair, accurate, or appropriate, the enduring reputation of casinos and the gaming industry as a less-than-wholesome or even sordid business makes them a potent wedge in political messaging.

“The marijuana industry from day one was deemed essential and allowed to stay open, so you have your sin taxes of liquor and marijuana and gambling, and it does get into the narrative of, ‘hey, this is what a Democratic administration deems essential: weed and gambling over a mom and pop shop,'” Darnoi said. “Whether there’s a whole lot of reality to that or not, it’s painting a narrative for a constituency that you want to reach. So, certainly opening up casinos and it being associated as a sin tax and the gaming industry having a seedy side — it does seem to happen.”

The (In)consistency Narrative

Michiganders have consistently supported Whitmer’s handling of the COVID-19 response since March, and a recent Detroit News poll showed 61% of the state’s voters approve of the job she has done. At the same time, however, the governor has faced staunch resistance from Lansing’s Republican-controlled legislature and from grassroots opponents whose tactics have ranged from carrying high-powered rifles into the state Capitol to longshot attempts at recalling the governor to challenging her emergency powers in court. The most recent strategy — and perhaps the one most likely to succeed — has centered around the nonprofit Unlock Michigan’s petition to repeal the law Whitmer has used to justify unilaterally extending her emergency powers month after month.

Although a majority of Michiganders continue to trust Whitmer’s handling of the pandemic, there have been moments where the governor’s decision-making has appeared inconsistent, and opponents have seized on these instances to win back public opinion.

There was Whitmer’s April stay-at-home order that permitted certain sections of big-box home improvement stores to remain open while closing others and caused a Lansing handyman to complain to Bridge Michigan: “You can put up drywall but you just can’t paint it right now because that’s not essential.” A September order caused confusion over how many people could be allowed inside restaurants and indoor event spaces. Likewise, Whitmer’s critics have framed the decision to reopen casinos before health clubs and movie theaters to argue that the governor’s policies have been harmfully haphazard.

“There’s not a lot of transparency when it comes to the rationale for why something is open and why something isn’t,” Darnoi said. “That’s probably something that the governor’s office could have done better — their explanation as to what their thinking was, in terms of what businesses opened up. Her critics are going to say they didn’t have a process. I’m not sure that’s entirely true, but they didn’t help themselves by having it be as murky and cloudy as it was. That leaves an opportunity to throw the casinos in or whatever other business you want to throw in there and say something’s wrong.

“There’s always a reference to science and data and numbers, but, it’s not terribly clear what the metrics are for opening,” Darnoi continued. “So, casinos are allowed to open under a 15% capacity because the tribes did it and we have some other data. And then the movie theater owners will say we have data from out of state that show we can do this, yet they remain closed. It’s a frustration with the overall process, and the casinos are the easiest targets.”

Where regional and party politics collide

Michigan Republicans, from Speaker Chatfield to party activist Tori Sachs, have been quick to allege that partisan favoritism played a role in Whitmer’s decision to allow casinos to reopen in Detroit before movie theaters in Bay City.

Detroit, of course, is the state’s biggest city and greatest single source of Democratic votes — and the city’s budget is highly dependent on wagering taxes and development payments that flow directly from the casinos to the Motor City’s coffers. Meanwhile, the most prominent advocate for reopening Michigan’s theaters has been Paul Glantz, a Republican donor and chairman of Emagine Entertainment, which operates 10 movie theaters in the state. Earlier this year, Emagine sued the state to reopen and lost.

“Republicans can say the governor opened the casinos for her Democratic buddy [Detroit Mayor] Mike Duggan and for a Democratic-run city, and here we are in Republican-land and things aren’t opening up,” Darnoi explained. “I think there is a factor that the city derives a significant portion of revenue from the casinos, and with the city looking at financial difficulties and having just come out of a bankruptcy process, the last thing you want is to appear like you’re heading down that road again. So I’m sure there was some political pressure to open up the casinos to help with the revenues not only to the city but to the state budget, too, knowing that we were going to have a pretty hefty deficit.”

Another factor that has allowed Republican legislators to declare open season on Detroit’s casinos has been regionalism.

“If you’re a lawmaker from the west side of the state or from Northern Michigan, your constituents aren’t [in Detroit], your constituents aren’t taking advantage of it,” Darnoi said. “The casinos offer up a pretty easy target.”

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Rafe Bartholomew

Rafe has worked as an editor and writer at Harper's Magazine, Grantland, Eater, and The Athletic. He is a co-author of the New York Times Bestselling book Basketball: A Love Story and the author of two other books, Pacific Rims and Two and Two.

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