It was late at night in the offices of the New Jersey Casino Association in the summer of 1993 above the 7-11, and Tom Carver was hopping mad. He had spent two years lining up support for a bill that would legalize sports betting in New Jersey, which he believed would vault Atlantic City into the forefront as the premier gaming destination in the U.S. His organization had sunk over $2 million into a campaign that included radio and TV spots, extensive lobbying and a postcard campaign to the state’s 800,000 senior citizens who would get relief from high priced prescriptions and medical services should the measure pass. When over 100,000 returned the postcards support sports betting to their legislators, the race was on.
Carver, whose bushy eyebrows gave him the look of a hawk to his opponents, but of an old Irish uncle you’d meet in a pub to his friends, was also racing the clock. Former New York Knick star and New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley had passed the Professional and Amateur Sportsbetting Protection Act (PASPA), in Congress that banned sports betting except in the states where it already existed. Bradley gave his state a one-year window to determine whether it would be exempted from the ban. In the runup to the legislative session, Carver believed he had all his ducks in a row. He had a powerful state senator and assemblyman sponsoring the bill in the legislature, and polls seemed to indicate the measure would pass if it made it to the ballot. He even was confident that a requirement that the bill must achieve a three-fifths majority of the legislature would be met.
But the politically savvy Carver missed one important item—the overall influence of state politics. The gubernatorial race to be decided that year between Christie Whitman, a Republican, and incumbent Democrat Governor Jim Florio was neck-and-neck. Unlike today, where Democrats are a virtual shoo-in in statewide races, the state house had been bouncing back and forth between parties for two decades. Republicans wanted to be sure the governor’s seat came back to them. And Florio was vulnerable because he had raised taxes in the state during his first term, so they saw a real opportunity to unseat him.
But polls showed that if the sports betting referendum made the ballot, it would attract more low-income voters, who invariably voted Democrat, which might give Florio the boost he needed. So Assembly Speaker Garabed “Chuck” Haytaian decided that the sports betting measure was not as important as a Republican governor, so he blocked its passage in the Assembly. The measure had passed easily in the Senate the preceding week. And by the way, Whitman won.
While there was still some time left to change Haytaian’s mind, Carver knew it was over.
“Everything has to come to an end,” he told reporters. “This may be the end, I don’t know.”
But he did know the end had come, and he resigned the following year as head of the casino association. In his 10 years as head of the organization, he had successfully lobbied to protect casinos from the wrath of then-governor Tom Kean, who opposed everything casinos wanted and appointed anti-gaming regulators to carry that out. But Carver’s diplomatic approach to all issues likely watered down Kean’s intransigence, with the casino industry in the middle a winning streak that saw revenues increase every year for over 30 years.
Carver was brought back in 2005 to become executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority by then-Governor Richard Codey. The CRDA had been created in the mid-1980s as a way to use casino taxes—an addition 1.25 percent of gross gaming revenue—to revive Atlantic City. But the reality was that North Jersey politicians had diverted much of the money that was supposed to go to improvements in Atlantic City to their own pet projects in their districts. Carver’s arrival refocused the agency’s attention on Atlantic City and under his administration, more money was dedicated to the city. But Carver’s stewardship was only a blip and the bloated bureaucracy that was the CRDA and continues to this day.
Carver should be remembered for his eternal optimism about all things Atlantic City. As head of the association during the Trump years, he wasn’t Trump’s favorite official, but when push came to shove, he wanted the best for the city he loved.
As for sports betting, his prediction that New Jersey would never have a chance to legalize sports betting if it didn’t happen in 1993 fell short. He didn’t imagine that PASPA would be thrown out as being unconstitutional in 2018, but his vision that sports betting would become a huge draw was true for not only Atlantic City but all other gaming jurisdictions that didn’t even exist in ’93. Sports betting never went away during those subsequent years, and the case can be made that Tom Carver, not Chris Christie or Ray Lesniak, is truly the father of sports betting in New Jersey.