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The House Tourism committee won’t convene for another hour and 15 minutes, but at 8 a.m. Monday John Radcliffe is already at work outside Conference Room 312.
He’s stacking blue T-shirts that read “Casino Now!” and positioning signs with slogans like “Local People Need Jobs.” As people gradually show up, he greets them enthusiastically by name and hands them a T-shirt and a sign.
“You got your testimony in — right?” he asks one man. “You sent it in electronically?”
Radcliffe is so comfortable working in the state Capitol that at one point he leaves his BlackBerry on a chair as he works the crowd. As the meeting time nears, he gently directs his supporters into the conference room, which quickly fills up — mostly with supporters of House Bill 2788, which would allow for a casino in Waikiki and impose a 15 percent wagering tax on gross receipts.
Radcliffe is a longtime and well-known lobbyist who formerly headed the Hawaii State Teachers Association. His clients include dozens of local and mainland interests.
But it’s Radcliffe’s client Marketing Resource Group of Lansing, Mich., that has him hard at work Monday on a goal that has eluded him for 12 years — to legalize gambling in Hawaii.
MRG is the public relations firm for Ilitch Holdings, a company controlled by Michael and Marian Ilitch, who own nearly a dozen Michigan companies such as Little Caesars Pizza and the Detroit Tigers.
The Ilitches also own MotorCity Casino Hotel, a 67,000-square-foot meeting and conference facility that offers slots, video poker, craps, roulette, blackjack and Texas Hold’Em.
MRG and the Ilitches want to do for Honolulu what it has done for Detroit — build a casino here — and Radcliffe is their man.
After nearly two hours of testimony, HB 2788 is deferred. But Radcliffe isn’t giving up; after the hearing he’s making his case to television reporters on the third-floor lanai.
Radcliffe is asked by Civil Beat, What’s next?
“It’s been deferred for now, but it hasn’t been deferred forever,” he replies, dejected but not resigned.
You’re not giving up?
“Have I ever?” he says.
If gambling is ever approved in Hawaii, it will largely be through the efforts of John Radcliffe, who turns 70 in May.
Radcliffe came to Hawaii in 1975 after working as a union organizer in Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee and Virginia. He served 13 years as executive director of the HSTA.
Radcliffe works for three closely connected lobbying firms: Radcliffe and Associates — “specializing in legislative and executive branch advocacy at all levels of government”; Capitol Consultants of Hawaii and G.A. Morris, the latter run by Radcliffe’s partner, George “Red” Morris.
Radcliffe’s local clients include the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, the Hawaii School Bus Association and the Hawaii Medical Assurance Association.
Mainland-based firms include AT&T, Microsoft, Monsanto, Glaxosmithkline, the Tobacco Institute and Corrections Corporation of America — the company that runs prisons, including the Arizona ones that house some 1,800 Hawaii prisoners.
In 2011, Radcliffe made 45 contributions to 43 of the 75 current sitting state lawmakers totaling $27,250, a Civil Beat review of campaign finance records shows. (The figures do not include the seat briefly held this year by Rep. Tom Okamura.) The donations typically averaged $500 each.
Morris made 38 contributions to 36 of the 75 current sitting state lawmakers adding up to $21,000. (Capitol Consultants of Hawaii made just three contributions last year — two to Sen. David Ige and one to Sen. Roz Baker.)
A compact man with a silver crewcut, Radcliffe is a tireless, articulate advocate for his clients. But it is gambling which has most consumed his energy and passion.
The Ilitches, says Radcliffe, have been “steadfast in wanting to help Hawaii have a casino.” He refers to the couple as “the saviors of Detroit” and says that Marian Ilitch is in town this week to lobby Hawaii elected officials.
Radcliffe says he has worked “off and on” for the Ilitches because local interest in gambling has “gone up and down.”
“It’s been problematic in Hawaii,” he explains. “There are some years where legislators simply haven’t wanted to talk at all about it, and other years where they want to think about it a lot — and this is one of those years when they want to do something about it.”
That interest was evident in House Tourism Monday, despite the deferral of HB 2788.
Rep. Jimmy Tokioka pointed out that a tax on pensions was rejected last year, while an increase in the general excise tax has consistently been rejected.
“Our previous governor had to furlough a lot of teachers,” said Tokioka. “That is one reason this bill is in consideration.”
Tourism Chair Tom Brower, who represents Waikiki, while respectful, seemed to downplay the concerns of religious groups that warned of social ills should HB 2788 become law.
Brower suggested that the estimated 3 percent to 6 percent of gamblers who are problem gamblers is a small percentage compared with the potential financial windfall for the state.
“I’ve done a lot of research, and (local) people who go to Vegas now spend $200 million annually in Vegas,” he said. “The idea is for them to pay it here.”
Radcliffe knows who and what he is up against: religious conservatives, many Republicans and “older, retired folks” who want to keep things as they are.
On his side, he says, are labor groups, Hawaiians and Sens. Malama Solomon and Clayton Hee — Hawaiian lawmakers who have introduced gambling bills this session.
It’s a difficult sell; the more than two dozen gambling bills introduced last year were shelved, and none (as of this writing) have been scheduled a new hearing.
Besides HB 2788, the only other new measure to be heard this session is one calling for gambling on Hawaii Home Lands. A House proposal was killed last week.
A recent Civil Beat poll found that most voters don’t want gambling, let alone a casino.
But Radcliffe points to other recent polls that he says demonstrate local support as well as among Asian tourists. He believes things are leaning his way — a trend that plays to his labor and lobbying background.
“Twelve years ago, I made it pretty clear that we were going to go hell in a hand basket with public employees in the state of Hawaii — that it would soon reach a point where we have more retirees than people in service, and that our health care costs and retirement costs would be out of sight,” he says. “That has come to pass, and we now have a $24.7 billion deficit in unfunded liabilities and no way to pay it off.”
Meanwhile, Radcliffe says Japan is looking to build 10 casinos this year, and that the Ilitches are involved. Radcliffe fears that that could kill the Japanese market for Hawaii, and maybe for the Chinese and Koreans, too.
“We need new sources of revenue, and the only thing we got is tourism,” he argues. “There are 307 million Americans who already have casinos and gambling in their state. Forty-eight states have it, two don’t — us and Utah. Utah is a Mormon theocracy surrounded by five states that have over 280 casinos within driving distance.”
Radcliffe believes he has the votes in the Capitol to get a gambling bill passed and expresses confidence that his friend, Gov. Neil Abercrombie, would support gambling. He does not want to wait until 2013, a non-election year.
“Our people got to get on a plane and fly 3,000 miles and spend several thousand dollars to go to Las Vegas, and we go in overwhelming numbers,” he says. “Something like 69 percent of the people who leave Hawaii for vacations every year go to Las Vegas and spend an enormous amount of money.”
Radcliffe continues: “There isn’t a better argument that we should be able to spend our own money at home.”