Richmond voters decided against the One Casino + Resort proposal 51.44 percent to 48.56 percent of votes in Tuesdays’ referendum, according to unofficial results at The Virginia Public Access Project. That’s despite $1.9 million in funding for the campaign, and major endorsements including Mayor Levar Stoney, rapper Missy Elliott, and actor Jamie Foxx. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe endorsed the casino, and his opponent governor-elect Glenn Youngkin approved of the proposal. Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) was the only major figure to speak against the proposal.
“They had everything you could want. Massive endorsements from everybody, all the big shots,” Paul Goldman said. “Close to double the money per voter that the governor’s campaigns were spending, and they were breaking all the records. So with massive amounts of money, all the support you want, they had every celebrity they could telling people that it was wrong to oppose it. You know what they said, ‘How could you oppose this’, implying that you were bigoted if you did. They did everything and yet the public still said No. No. Yes, it was by a small margin, that’s only because of what we were up against. ”
Goldman said he and Richmond investor Jim Ukrop spent about $200,000 to fund the No Casino RVA effort, and worked alongside local activists including Richmond for All, a progressive group that previously helped kill a coliseum project championed by Stoney. Goldman thinks casinos are exploitative, and said Richmond officials should be less focused on big projects and more focused on improving education if they actually want to help minorities.
“For the last two years, we have worked so hard to build a large and inclusive tent with our ONE Casino + Resort project,” Urban One CEO Alfred Liggins said in a statement to ABC8News. “We had a lot of loyal supporters who worked tirelessly on behalf of this project and for whom we will be eternally grateful.”
Stoney commented on the map showing referendum results by district to CBS6: “I don’t think the vote was about race. I think when you look at the map this is where our white residents live, and this is where our black residents live. Our white residents voted no. Our black residents many voted yes.”
Five Casino Licenses for Virginia
In 2020, the General Assembly decided to grant casino licenses to five cities: Portsmouth, Richmond, Norfolk, Danville, and Bristol. But the General Assembly also required the cities to hold referenda on casinos to determine if the projects would go forward. Four Virginia cities approved the projects by significant margins in 2020; Richmond is the only city where voters decided not to allow a casino to be built.
Senator Joe Morrissey’s (D-Richmond) district would have included the proposed casino.
“The citizens in south Richmond in the eighth and ninth district voted overwhelmingly for the casino. The citizens in the first and the second, the third said, ‘No.’ You know, holier than thou — that’s the way I look at it,” he said. “Somebody else is going to benefit from Richmond’s loss. Another locality is going to come along.”
With Richmond’s rejection of the casino, Goldman and Morrissey think other localities might see an opportunity and ask the General Assembly to allow them to apply for the fifth casino license.
Morrissey said, “The legislature will have to decide who else to issue it to. I’d like to see Petersburg get it, myself. Then all the Richmonders can come down there and spend their money in Petersburg. It was a very disappointing decisions for Richmond.”
How to Beat a Marketing Powerhouse
Richmond For All credited grassroots community organizing with the win.
“I am so proud of our organization and our city. We proved that an organized grassroots can defeat moneyed interests. We believe in knocking on doors and talking to our neighbors. That’s what made the difference,” Richmond For All’s Political Director Quinton Robbins said in a press release.
At the end of the race, some Youngkin voters, and some Democratic voters combined with young people to kill the proposal. Goldman described his media strategy to help get the last few percent of voters to push casino opposition across the finish line.
In mid-October, internal polling showed the casino was ahead, and Goldman and Ukrop were only working with around $200,000 to combat marketing from the developers.
Goldman, a former Democratic Party of Virginia chair and experienced political operative, took a cue from Senator Barry Goldwater’s 1962 campaign, where his opponent dominated all the traditional channels to reach voters.
“What we learned was, we decided to try to find venues and these approaches to people that other side wasn’t using,” Goldman said.
The One Casino proposal spent heavily on radio, television, billboards, and other traditional advertising, but didn’t spend enough in digital markets. Goldman and Ukrop focused their money on an all-digital approach targeted tightly in certain areas of Richmond.
By doing that, they reached a critical group of young people who don’t get their news from traditional media markets.
Goldman said that bringing in a black-owned partner for the proposal and touting economic benefits to the minority community made it hard for young people to oppose the casino. In response, the No Casino RVA marketing used a diverse group of people to reach socially-conscientious young people.
“It seemed to me that young people had moved from being somewhat against the casino to strongly for it because they were told that it was a black casino, whatever that means. Anyhow, they didn’t want to be seen as anti-that,” Goldman said.
“So, what we were telling people is look we all know casinos are exploitative, I mean come on,” he said. “And so, it’s okay to be against it. It doesn’t make you bigoted to be against the first 100 percent black-owned casino.”