When the chips are down

When the chips are down

Chip the douchey gamblerTwo competing news stories ran yesterday related to the MGM Springfield casino here in western Massachusetts. One of them involves Chip, the douchey-looking gambler-mascot of GameSense, pictured above.

The first story is this headline:

MGM Resorts International Honored With National Council On Problem Gambling’s Public Awareness Award – Company’s GameSense program recognized again for transforming responsible gambling education. (1)

This came from the PR Newswire, which means it was put out by MGM Resorts International to congratulate itself. And what are they reaching around to pat themselves on the back for?

Chip house of cards

This doofus. Compulsive gamblers are supposed to listen to Chip, an actor in a web app, and then they won’t have a problem that turns tragic. (It did not turn out fine for this guy.) (4) 

The reason casinos have to do public relations campaigns is not just because sometimes deeply indebted gamblers show up with a gun. It’s because most of their neighbors realize, sooner or later, that casinos are not good for communities.

To divert and dispel that energy, there is the Community Advisory Committee. MGM Springfield’s is made up of leaders from Springfield, MA. It’s supposed to meet quarterly and have real oversight. Instead, the Committee has not met at all, says Johnnie Ray McKnight, who is on the CAC. While the community group is being sidelined, some other committee is doing their job. 

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The National Council On Problem Gambling held their 33rd annual conference in Denver, Colorado, where they gave MGM Resorts an award for using GameSense to encourage gamblers to have a plan and be informed about how gambling works. At the GameSense for Massachusetts, I found our douchey friend, Chip. If you object to my calling him douchey, remember who his friends are.

I thought the National Council on Problem Gambling would be something like a consortium of non-profit and state agencies, public health professionals, and law enforcement working together to provide a seamless network of services to an at-risk population for predation by both legal and illegal gambling, as well as loansharking. If you thought that, too, then their PR is working.

It’s not like that. The organizational members of this National Council are virtually all casinos, lotteries, and others in the gaming industry

Baylor University economist Earl Grinols concluded that addicted gamblers cost the United States between $32.4 billion and $53.8 billion per year, and that the long-term costs of introducing casinos into a region that didn’t previously have them outweighed the economic benefits by a greater than 3:1 ratio. (5) New England is glutted with casinos, causing them to turn on one another. MGM Springfield has sued the federal government for giving the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes a casino license in East Windsor, CT, without a competitive bidding process. That case has delayed the tribes’ opening for at least a year. (12)

The propaganda onslaught to soften a community for exploitation begins long before ground is broken. MGM Springfield didn’t spring up overnight. In 1994, Casino Magic Corporation of Mississippi spent a third of a million dollars on a pro-casino astroturf campaign called Citizens for Springfield’s Future. (6)  In 1995, another pro-casino group, The Committee for A Better Springfield Future, was championed by Chester Ardolino, the self-styled renegade cop, and older brother of Mayor Albano’s chief of staff, Anthony Ardolino. (7, 8) The brothers were investigated as part of a 1999 corruption probe into the city of Springfield. Anthony stepped down after a DUI, and in 2003 both brothers were charged with fraud and tax evasion in a deal in which they sold a local bar to known gangsters Carmine Manzi and his son, “Little Joe.”

There has been some local, corporate interest in a casino in Springfield for a long time. One early champion was the late Peter L. Picknelly of Peter Pan Bus Lines. (9) The business community downtown must be a small world, because Anthony Ardolino and Peter Picknelly and his son, Paul, reportedly attended the funeral of the slain Al Bruno, in 2003. (10) The Picknelly family own the only local interest in MGM Springfield, through the holding company, Blue Tarp. (11)

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The mayor, city council president, and the MGM Springfield each have three members on the casino’s stalled committee. The other appointments include two from local chambers of commerce, but only the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce, has made one. The Massachusetts Latino Chamber of Commerce has not had their appointment confirmed. (2)

McKnight, who is one of the Springfield City Council President’s appointees, challenged Mayor Sarno in 2015 for his office, and is now running for City Council. 

Casinos, online gambling companies, and state lotteries contort themselves like Cirque du Soleil performers to congratulate one another for their responsible gaming practices, to distract you from the fact that, in a rapidly growing industry that makes at least $37 billion a year in the United States, alone, (3) the costs of community harm are ours to bear. 

The house always wins, as even Chip will admit, and gaming industry owners never stop worrying we’ll get smart to their con. So this week, they’re putting out statements from their friends to say MGM Resorts is super responsible, on the exact same day that a community leader is pointing out in the local paper that, at the community involvement theater in Springfield, the curtain has not risen on schedule. 

 

References

  1. (2019, August 12). PR Newswire (USA). Available from NewsBank: Access World News: https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=AWNB&docref=news/17546E5874BBCD38.
  2. Goonan, P. (2019, August 12). Casino advisory panel has yet to meet. Republican, The (Springfield, MA), p. 002. Available from NewsBank: Access World News: https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=AWNB&docref=news/17544B926C11D470.
  3. Marcus, J. “Why Casinos are Becoming Like Landfills.” Published 23 December 2013 in TIME. http://nation.time.com/2013/12/23/why-casinos-are-becoming-like-landfills/ Accessed 25 October 2017.
  4. Rosengren, J. “How Casinos Enable Gambling Addicts.” Published December 2016 in The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/12/losing-it-all/505814/ Accessed 25 October 2017.
  5. Skolnik, S. “Betting the House: Five years later, Maryland’s casinos have left addiction, crime, and half-filled promises in their wake.” Published 11 August 2015. http://www.citypaper.com/news/features/bcp-081215-feature-gambling-20150811-story.html Accessed 25 October 2017.
  6. Turner, F. “Advocates, foes spend $363,000 in casino battle.” Published 3 November 1994 in The Republican. P. 1.
  7. “Q&A: Chester Ardolino.” Published 27 June 1993 in The Republican. P. B1.
  8. Pugh, S. “Pro-casino coalition gains a host of supporters.” Published 25 August 1995 in The Republican. P. B4.
  9. Turner, F. “Advocates, foes spend $363,000 in casino battle.” Published 3 November 1994 in The Republican. P. 1.
  10. Barry, S. “Bruno wake draws hundreds.” Published 29 November 2003 in The Republican. P. B01.
  11. Ring, D. “Paul Picknelly may have hit the jackpot with MGM Springfield casino plan.” Published 23 December 2013. http://www.masslive.com/politics/index.ssf/2013/12/mgm_springfield_partner_paul_picknelly_may_have.html Accessed 25 October 2017.
  12. Blair, R. (2019, August 11). Will Connecticut ever get a third casino? CAPITOL WATCH. Hartford Courant, The (CT), p. 3B. Available from NewsBank: Access World News: https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=AWNB&docref=news/1754278FBB11BC10.

Domenic Sarno, son of immigrants

Domenic Sarno, son of immigrants

Last summer, Mayor Domenic Sarno proclaimed June 2017 Immigrant Heritage Month in Springfield, Massachusetts. To kick off the event, Sarno was quoted on the city’s Facebook page:

“I’m a first generation Italian/American. My parents, Alfonso and Clara Sarno are Italian immigrants, who as children survived underground in Italy during the Nazi occupation of World War II. My dad, a barber, and my mom, a seamstress, legally immigrated to Springfield and became American citizens. They opened their own businesses. They made sure to make myself, my sister Giovanna and brother Alfonso Jr. proud to be American, but they never let our family lose touch of our Italian roots and foundation of family – “a familia,” [sic] – faith, education, traditions and of course our food. I continue to instill these values in my own family with my wife Carla and daughters Cassandra and Chiara.”

Although Mayor Sarno calls himself a first generation Italian-slash-American, the truth is more complicated. The mayor’s paternal great-grandparents lived in West Springfield as early as 1906. While they lived here, their son, Domenico, was born.

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West Springfield, MA, births for 1910 lists Domenico Sarno first, born on 1 January

They returned to Italy sometime before 1920, taking their young family with them.

 

That year, Prohibition began in the United States, as did a period of ascendance for American fascism. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 put a quota on Italian and other non-WASP immigrants, greatly reducing their numbers. The war in Europe slowed Italian immigration to the US to a trickle.

In the decades after WWII’s end, many families from Italy immigrated and settled in Springfield, including a young Al Bruno. The Sarno family moved back to Springfield in 1948. Domenico Sarno, who was born here in 1910, returned with his wife and their children, all of whom were born in Italy and yet, American citizens through Domenico’s status. Their son, Alfonso Sarno, the popular barber shop owner and father of the mayor, was twelve years old.

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The Sarno family, stamped “U.S. Cit[izen] on the travel manifest
Today, Mayor Sarno uses his office to harass and intimidate South Congregational Church and the families they shelter from federal immigration. Advocates for refugee families criticize Sarno as “publicly inhospitable” to new immigrants. The mayor plays the respectability card when immigration comes up, such as when Trump called Haiti and African countries “shithole countries,” and Sarno pointed out that Dr. Harry Dumay, the president of Elms College, in Chicopee, where his oldest daughter is a student, is a native of Haiti. Sarno is quoted saying “No one is against legal immigration aspects, especially those who have played by the rules.” But he criticizes the legal activities of Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts, a resettlement agency, describing them as “using” Springfield as a ‘designated resettlement site.’

Springfield may not be a proclaimed sanctuary city, but that doesn’t mean Mayor Sarno can’t make different choices, ones that are more honest and less wasteful. He could prevent local law enforcement resources being diverted to assist a federal agency, refrain from launching a targeted investigation into one church’s status, and tell his family’s whole immigration story, not a version that make his political points.

Sarno’s personal and political base is an immigrant community that maintains close ties to its ancestral home, language, religion, and culture. He has many relatives on both sides of his family who have made Springfield their home. Not everyone who has sought refuge on these shores—from poverty, conscription, corruption, and war, as many southern Italians have—has been as lucky. Mayor Domenic Sarno, the son of immigrants, had the good fortune to be born the grandson of a native-born American citizen.

The Mayor did not respond to my requests for an interview.

Shout out to Jennifer Mendelsohn, founder of #resistancegenealogy