Petersburg Casino: Is Youngkin Channeling Wilder and Should Biden, Warner, or Trump Care?

Doug Wilder

by Paul Goldman

Race has too long defined Virginia politics. Several efforts to change this dynamic are discussed in my book Remaking Virginia Politics. My gut senses 2023 may feature another noteworthy moment on the road to Dr. King’s dream. The fight between Petersburg and Richmond over a casino license is currently not seen in this light. Neither by the General Assembly. Nor the Virginia media. Let me humbly discuss an alternative view. Based on my experience helping to move Virginia forward.

In Virginia’s political lexicon, Governor Glenn Youngkin is a conservative white Republican. While winning the governorship, he got barely 13% of the vote in Petersburg. His worst showing in any city. Hardly surprising given the city’s roughly 75% black electorate, 85% Democratic in partisan terms. The city has long been economically challenged, with a high poverty rate. Yet Governor Youngkin has made reviving Petersburg a top priority. Conventional political wisdom, to paraphrase singer Johnny Lee, says he is looking for love in all the wrong places. I disagree.

Back in 1985, Virginia Republicans called Doug Wilder the “most liberal person” to ever seek statewide office. The Virginia Democratic Party establishment generally, and rural conservative Democrats particularly, agreed. His campaign to rip the “No Blacks Need Apply” sign from the door to statewide office is now historic. But Democratic leaders, and the state’s leading pundit, considered it racially delusional back then. They derided his decision to start the campaign in the whitest part of the Commonwealth. Lee County sits in Virginia’s farthest southwestern corner. The surrounding counties “out there” are closer to Chicago than to Wilder’s native Richmond. Area voters were historically inhospitable to perceived liberal Democrats. When legendary liberal Democrat Henry Howell first sought his party’s gubernatorial nomination, he got 2% of the Lee County primary vote. The next time he got 3%. The famed civil rights advocate only did marginally better in neighboring Scott County. Roughly a generation later, liberal Donald McEachin became the first African-American to win the Democratic nomination for Attorney General. He got a combined 18 total votes in those jurisdictions.

So yes, starting in Lee County did seem crazy. I was the only white person not in a psychiatric ward willing to be Doug’s campaign manager. The polls had us losing 52 to 27. His white support hovered around 20%. Back then, a Democrat needed 45% to win. Democratic Governor Chuck Robb’s top guy was assigned to write Wilder a letter. He said the white party establishment wanted to help. But they refused unless he fired me and adopted a rational strategy.

Wilder of course knew better. He needed to overcome the growing mantra calling him unacceptable to undecided white votes. This required a compelling, indeed unique counter-narrative. One forcing thoughtful Virginians to think the historically unthinkable. Our slogan said it all: “From Korea to Richmond: Still Fighting for Virginia.” Wilder ultimately won 60% of the Lee County vote. As Barack Obama said, Wilder’s victories echoed across the country. The future President decided to rethink the conventional wisdom on race and politics. Contrary to all the state’s pundits, Wilder’s road to history did indeed go through 96% white, rural Lee County.

Enter now, stage right, Governor Glenn Youngkin. He is being mentioned as a GOP presidential contender. If not President, then as a potential challenger in 2026 to Democratic Senator Mark Warner. Youngkin is unique in GOP presidential circles. He alone has no history with the Trump White House. He alone got elected in a state carried the last four times by the Democratic Presidential nominee. He alone is seen as willing to run in the economic conservative lane, not as a culture warrior.

Ronald Reagan is the only Republican presidential candidate to carry 49 states. He talked about building a shining city on the hill. An ode to American exceptionalism. Where the bounties of this country are available to all. A vision from America’s first pilgrims. Cited also by Democratic President John F. Kennedy.

Moving words for sure. But far more politically compelling for Youngkin if he could plausibly point to his conservative private equity approach in reviving a poverty-stricken city long ruled by Democrats. Even better, a majority black city like Petersburg. Republicans have long claimed pro-government Democratic spending plans were traps. They could never turn a city around. But for political purposes, Democrats preferred to dangle false hope and keep minorities dependent on Democratic programs.

A laughably silly claim. But the following is most serious: Republicans have lost the popular vote in 7 out of the last 8 presidential elections. Their worst showing since the GOP’s founding in 1856. The last Republican presidential candidate not holding national office to win a popular vote majority was Reagan in 1980. Relying on winning the Electoral College with a minority of the vote leaves little margin for error.

Republican campaign experts know the GOP needs a wider appeal. But the country’s changing demographics present a real challenge. Logic says the GOP will need to attract voters from Democratic constituencies. In that connection, the last Republican urging the GOP to focus on the Black community was the late Congressman Jack Kemp. He championed new financial incentives to attract private capital to economically challenged cities like Petersburg. This made him one of the most respected members of Congress. In 1996, the GOP picked the former pro quarterback as the party’s vice-presidential candidate.

But Kemp, despite his best efforts, never could point to a singular achievement. He never expected to turn cities like Petersburg back into a majority GOP locality. This last happened in 1956. America’s racial politics began to change in 1960. Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy used his clout to get Dr. Martin King released from a Fulton County jail in 1960. Kemp knew the GOP needed only a reliable twentyish percent of the black vote. This would help win elections in currently Democratic leaning states. The Kemp banner lay fallen for nearly 30 years. It seems to me Youngkin has his eyes on it.

The potential reward is not solely rooted in black voting statistics. Previously Republican suburban women have been voting Democratic. One reason is a feeling the GOP is intolerant on racial issues. Politics is a game of perceptions. If Republicans were seen as receiving 1 in 5 Black votes, the GOP white female problem would be easier to overcome.

As luck would have it, the leaders of Petersburg announced last year that they want a casino. And not just any casino. Rather, a sprawling, privately-funded $1.4 billion dollar casino development deal offered by The Cordish Companies, a leader in the gaming industry. Owned and operated by some clever Jewish guys out of Maryland.

Until now, Youngkin has struggled to bring significant private investment to Petersburg. City officials appreciate his good intentions. But as the saying goes: BS walks, money talks.

Cordish therefore is manna from political heaven. A casino may not be the best type of private industry. But around the country, it has long had strong Black community support. If Youngkin could get local officials and citizens singing his praises on social media platforms, he would soon emerge as a national figure. Surely his advisors have done the math.

However, there is a roadblock between Petersburg and the beltway leading into DC.

In 2020, the General Assembly passed legislation authorizing only 5 casino licenses for Virginia. The legislators gave one each to five cities: Bristol, Danville, Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Richmond. But not Petersburg. Each city had the right to host a casino provided their voters approved the decision in a referendum.
The voters in Bristol, Danville, Norfolk, and Portsmouth approved a local casino by an overwhelming majority.

But in 2021, to the shock of Richmond Mayor Stoney, the City Council, casino backers and all the pundits, city voters rejected the casino referendum by a 51 to 49 upset margin — 85% of the black community backed the project. 80% of the white voters opposed. As usual, the mayor, the current City Council president and many casino backers used these figures to accuse the white community of racism. Stoney and the City Council had made a point of awarding the license to an operator that promised this would be the first Black-owned casino in America. They all said it was way past time to end the white privilege operating in this industry. They said the white opposition reflected a refusal to support a Black-owned casino.

I lead the opposition. Politics takes a thick skin. Especially in Richmond. Twenty years ago, every Black elected official opposed my campaign to create a popularly-elected mayor. They said the law I championed guaranteed the election of a white mayor. There have been 5 such mayoral elections under the new law. Lt. Governor Tim Kaine helped get it through the General Assembly. Governor Warner signed it. A black candidate has won each time. The last white candidate got less than 10% of the vote.

Richmond desperately needs a mayor who believes in Dr. King’s dream: that all people have a right to be judged on the content of their character. Not merely the color of their skin. But that is a discussion for another column.

What matters right now is this undeniable truth: the Black community strongly supports a second casino referendum this year. As does the mayor and City Council. Except for me, all the main players in the Vote NO campaign from 2021 believe a second vote is unfair. They call it an insult to the people who voted against it.

Like it or not, the casino has become a racial issue. I don’t much like it. But I have learned that one has to face reality to make change. After Richmond’s rejection, Petersburg Senator Joe Morrissey, and Petersburg Delegate Kim Taylor saw an opening. They convinced lawmakers to give their city an opportunity to compete for the fifth casino license.

The governor, along with the House of Delegates GOP majority and the Democratic majority in the State Senate, agreed on a compromise. Petersburg would get a chance in 2022 to prove a local casino could be financially profitable. In return, Richmond would be allowed to hold a second referendum in 2023.
Thus I think the RVA black community is asking a fair question: is it too much in the 21st century to expect state lawmakers to respect the voting rights given to a majority minority city?

As I write this column, the Democrat majority in the Senate, led by Richmond Senator Jen McClellan, is backing Richmond. They want the state to keep its promise to Richmond. This means the city, if it so chooses, can have a second casino referendum this November. The Senate further denied Petersburg the right to host a casino.

Over in the House of Delegates, the GOP majority is backing their colleague Ms. Taylor. They passed her bill giving Petersburg the right to win the fifth casino license before Richmond would be allowed a Second Referendum.
What then, is a fair outcome given all the varied factors at play in this Casino debate?

A state study in 2022 concluded both Richmond and Petersburg could each, simultaneously, support a local casino. Senator McClellan is the key legislator on the issue right now. She is soon to be elected to Congress. Her campaign has made much of her becoming the first black female to win a Virginia congressional seat. This makes it difficult for her to talk about this history while at the same time double crossing the very Black community helping her make history.

But once in Congress, she will also represent Petersburg. I know she wants to do right by both communities. Moreover, she is also campaigning on her record as a voting-rights advocate. She has vowed to support restoring Section 5 to the Voting Rights Act now that the Supreme Court gutted it.

Jen is absolutely right here. But this is also true: if Section 5 still existed, the Biden Department of Justice would stop implementing any state law overturning current law giving Richmond citizens the right to vote on a casino referendum if authorized by the City Council.

As for Governor Youngkin, he surely doesn’t want to be seen as having reneged on a promise to Richmond’s Black community to help Petersburg. This is not a winning national narrative.

But as a political dilemma goes, this is easy to resolve.

Let both cities hold a referendum. Yes, many leaders of Richmond’s white community will strongly protest. But, with all due respect, this is not the Byrd era. This is the Wilder era. Like it or not, the Black community wants a second vote. They were promised one last year. Virginian’s rejected pari-mutual betting in a statewide referendum the first time it was on the ballot. The margin had been 52 to 48. The white business establishment behind the sport of kings demanded the General Assembly give them a second chance. This included the Richmond white business establishment. City residents had voted overwhelmingly to allow gambling on the ponies. The General Assembly gave them a second chance. No one called that insulting to the voters.

Racial politics has hurt Richmond as it has Virginia. It remains too often a hard fight to move things forward. There are many difficult racially tinged issues yet to be fairly resolved. I think the false attack on the white community by Mayor Stoney, City Council President Mike Jones and others is reprehensible. But as the saying goes, the fight over a second referendum is not the hill to die on.

Bottom line: let the people vote. If Petersburg says yes, then Youngkin gets a big win. Democrats might not like it. But why punish the most Democratic city in the state because a Republican finally gives a damn? If Richmond says yes, then the General Assembly in 2024 can decide whether to choose one over the other —  or it could allow 6 casinos in Virginia.

If either city rejects a casino, then the casino license math solves itself.

At the same time, I jealously guard my right, and that of others, to vote NO again. I have always kept an open mind. Even with those who have falsely accused me of racism and worse. So I will be prepared to let Mayor Stoney and the City Council persuade me on the benefits of casino proposal they intend to present to the voters.

However, I will likely prove a tough sell. And if the mayor, the Council, and the casino operator simply do a rerun of the last referendum, they will deserve to lose even bigger.

Paul Goldman is the author of “Remaking Virginia Politics: In the Shadow of the Byrd Machine.”

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10 responses to “Petersburg Casino: Is Youngkin Channeling Wilder and Should Biden, Warner, or Trump Care?”

  1. John Harvie Avatar
    John Harvie

    Casinos are now smoke free (except on cruise ships which galls me) and safe places for those so inclined. Let both cities have one if voters agree. If they are financially viable they will survive.

    1. Depart from Australia or the UK and the on-ship casino will be non-smoking.

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    The state shouldn’t pick economic winners and losers. Why are there only five casinos licensed in Virginia? And why in some of the poorest places in Virginia? Who does the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond think will be betting in Petersburg? Tourists from NoVa? We bet just across the bridge at the MGM Grand in Maryland.

    The Cordish Group will make its money from people in Petersburg. They will have recouped their investment (and more) before being forced to shut down.

    Perhaps the worthies in Richmond would do well to take a road trip to Atlantic City, NJ.

    I have no objection to casinos. I play cards and dice myself.

    I have no objection to localities deciding whether or not to allow casinos in their jurisdictions.

    However, the idea that casinos will become engines of urban renewal is about as dim-witted as it gets.

    1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead

      Atlantic City reveals much about what casinos really mean for a community.

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        It seems like our General Assembly learned nothing from the generally wretched experience of Atlantic City. “C’mon, man”.

  3. Ronald Reagan is the only Republican presidential candidate to carry 49 states.

    I’m pretty sure Richard Nixon won every state except Massachusetts in 1972.

    And: Owned and operated by some clever Jewish guys out of Maryland.

    Will you please remove this line from the article. It is irrelevant to the arguments being made. It is also a rather jarring non-sequitur which led this reader to wonder why the author would care about the religious/ethnic background of proposed casino owners.

  4. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    “He alone is seen as willing to run in the economic conservative lane, not as a culture warrior.”

    Someone has not been paying attention…

  5. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

    I truly like and respect Doug Wilder. He effectively gave the Washington Post the finger when Wilder ignored the constant stream of editorials demanding tax increases during hard economic times. But Wilder refused and managed his way through the challenges.

    Re: Culture Wars. It takes at least two sides to fight a war. It is being fought by those on the left as well as the right.

    1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead

      Most Virginia 11th graders taking US History cannot even tell you one thing about Doug Wilder.

      1. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

        I strongly suspect that is oh so true. But, IMO, he is one of the best governors I’ve seen in the 5 states where I’ve lived.

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