For the second time, voters in Richmond, Virginia defeated a ballot issue that would have allowed developers Urban One and Churchill Downs to build the $562 million Richmond Grand Resort and Casino in the city.
The measure was narrowly defeated by about 1,500 votes in 2021, when around 79,000 people cast ballots. This year, according to the Virginia Department of Elections, a total of 64,533 votes were cast, with 39,768 or 61.62 percent voting no, and 24,765 or 38.38 percent voting yes.
The pro-casino PAC, Richmond Wins, Vote Yes, contributed $10,684,473 between September 15 and October 30, according to the state elections board, equaling about $135 per vote. Expenses included hundreds of paid canvassers, free concerts and block parties and free meals at early voting polling places through October and November.
In comparison, the No Means No Casino PAC contributed a total of $399,968 in the same time frame, or about $10 per vote. With a campaign fund of less than $200,000, the anti-casino group, led by political activist and NewMarket CEO Thomas E. Gottwald as well as the Ukrop family, provided yard signs and sent letters to residents. They also sponsored an airplane carrying a banner reading “VOTE NO CASINO…AGAIN” to fly over the Richmond Folk Festival in October.
Following the defeat, the casino partners issued a statement: “We are proud to have run a community centered campaign to create more opportunities for residents of this great city to rise into the middle class. We are grateful to the thousands of Richmonders who voted for good jobs and a stronger city, especially those in Southside who poured their hearts into this project.”
In his statement, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said, “I will continue to be a voice for communities that have been historically overlooked and underserved. I will work for more accessible and affordable child care, for good-paying jobs and for an abundance of opportunities for ALL Richmonders, no matter their zip code or socioeconomic status.” Stoney had committed a portion of the casino tax revenue to providing child care in the city.
Paul Goldman, the campaign manager for former Governor L. Douglas Wilder, said in a statement, “For too long, the politics of Richmond has been controlled by politicians and their allies who put their own self-interest before the public interest. Today, the people of Richmond said clearly those days are over. Richmond can afford right now to fix our schools, provide affordable day care, achieve equality for all and reduce the tax burden on the citizenry. The losing side tonight said the only way to do that is to fleece the poor. The winning side said the way to do that is for all of us to work together for the common good. I’d like to think we can start on this new path tomorrow.”
Controversy erupted in the days leading up to the election amid reports of antisemitic and racially insensitive speech on Urban One-owned radio stations in Richmond. Guest host Preston Brown was banned for stating on the air, “Paul Goldman is a Jew who got the same trait as Judas. He’s a white Jew with the background of Judas. I’m talking about one person, and his name is Paul Goldman, and he’s a Judas. And I think somebody might have heard me say ‘Jew.’ He’s a Judas, and Judas was with Jesus.”
Goldman issued a statement accepting an apology from Urban One Chief Executive Officer Alfred Liggin, but he added, “The whole pro-casino side seem oblivious to the damage they have done to Richmond. It isn’t merely their failure to our people as a whole. For the love of money, for personal gain, they are willing to turn their casino project into a wedge of division, to attempt to win by a divisive strategy serving only their selfish interests.”
Also, in a radio interview on October 18, Urban One Founder and Chairman Cathy Hughes, who is black, used racial slurs to refer to black residents who oppose the project, calling middle-class black Richmonders who opposed the casino versus working-class Black residents who support it as “house n——s and field n——s.” Hughes also complained about the expense of the referendum campaign, stating, “I’ve had to pay lawyers and accountants and lobbyists and make contributions to everybody I thought could influence.”
The Richmond Grand development would have included a casino, 250-room hotel, a 3,000-seat concert venue and a soundstage. Supporters estimated the project would have created 1,300 permanent jobs and generated $30 million in annual tax revenue.
Richmond was one of five cities authorized by the state Legislature in 2019 to host a casino, if voters approved it. Casinos have already opened in Bristol, Danville and Portsmouth and a fourth is planned for Norfolk.
State Del. Paul Krizek, vice chair of a subcommittee reviewing the state’s gambling regulations, told the Virginia Mercury, “I feel that we need to put a pause on expansion. And one of the reasons we need to do it is we don’t have a regulatory body that handles all of gambling yet.”
Krizek said he plans to introduce a bill requiring a 3-year waiting period before a proposed casino rejected by voters can be placed on the ballot again. He told the Mercury, “I don’t know of any referendums that don’t have language in there that don’t put a limit on how many times a vote can occur. It’s unfair to voters to keep coming back to the well every single year after year until you win.”
He stated the casino law’s lack of a time limit between referenda most likely was “an oversight,” adding, “I don’t think anybody anticipated that a locality would say no to it.”