Two gambling goliaths came into Florida intending to upend the state’s multibillion-dollar gaming industry. Only one obstacle stood in their way: the Seminole Tribe of Florida. And over the course of eight months, the Tribe proved to be a force that no amount of money could conquer.
This is the story of the two most expensive ballot initiative campaigns in U.S. history and how the Seminole Tribe, along with its cadre of political advisers, navigated unprecedented terrain to stop them in their tracks.
‘A big deal’
Aug. 6, 2021, was a “big deal for the state of Florida,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said when the federal government officially signed off on the state’s new Gaming Compact with the Seminole Tribe. Just a few months before, Seminole Tribal Chairman Marcellus Osceola Jr., Seminole Gaming CEO Jim Allen, Seminole Tribe General Counsel Jim Shore and Will McKinley of Poole McKinley masterfully helped secure broad bipartisan support from the Legislature on a historic Gaming Compact — a deal that would allow the Tribe to operate sports betting in return for guaranteed payments to the state, starting with $2.5 billion over the first five years.
It was around this time when two other gaming giants, Draft Kings and Las Vegas Sands, saw an opening for expansion and sponsored gambling initiatives to appear on Florida’s 2022 election ballot. They immediately seeded their campaign coffers with $20 million and $17 million, respectively. The first order of business would be to collect the necessary signatures to appear on the ballot and the decks for success appeared stacked in their favor even with the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc across the state.
The Seminole Tribe, which migrated to Florida in the 1700s, was not going to back down from defending their home turf.
Political operation spearheaded by small group of Tribe loyalists
Rick Asnani, the founder and president of Cornerstone Solutions in West Palm Beach, has a long history with the Seminole Tribe dating back to the first Compact in 2009. Known for his data-driven precision, Asnani was asked by Allen and the Tribe to lead and chair its Standing Up for Florida PAC to protect its gaming empire from out-of-state entities.
Asnani would enlist some familiar allies to assist with the operation. Adam Goodman, an award-winning media strategist and fellow alum of the 2009 Gaming Compact joined forces, as did McKinley, Gary Bitner, the Tribe’s long-time spokesman, and Alia Faraj-Johnson. Asnani also recruited a fresh face to the Tribe’s orbit in Sarasota-based political operative Max Goodman (half-brother to Adam), who Republican Party of Florida Chairman Joe Gruters recently said is a “master at creating chaos for opponents and throwing them off their game.”
This team would form the Tribe’s political nucleus.
Shocking court decision and first-of-its-kind ground and television assault define holiday season
It was a decision that sent shockwaves throughout Florida and the gaming world. In the dead of night, three days before Thanksgiving, a federal district court judge in Washington invalidated the Compact, ruling that it violated federal Indian gaming law.
Maybe it should not have come as a complete surprise given a couple of weeks before the judge in the case, Dabney Friedrich, publicly castigated the federal government’s bungling attorney saying, “I find it extremely hard to believe that the government doesn’t even know what its position is.”
With the new Compact and sports betting put on hold, this was a break the political committees representing outside interests were looking for to convince Floridians of the need for gambling expansion in the Sunshine State.
And then the ads hit. Over and over and over again. From Miami all the way to the Panhandle, TV ads flooded the airwaves with a simple, memorable, and ultimately effective message: “Don’t sign the petitions.”
Whether watching “Dancing with the Stars” or “Monday Night Football”, Floridians were bombarded with television spots featuring fellow Floridians of all different ages, genders, and ethnicities delivering those four simple words straight to the camera. The air assault in combination with an equally impressive ground campaign would stunt both ballot initiatives from gaining momentum off the federal court’s ruling.
The costliest signature-gathering campaign U.S. history
By themselves, the two ballot initiatives spent more to try to qualify for the ballot than any signature-gathering effort in U.S. history. While falling 77,000 signatures short of meeting the mark, the Las Vegas Sands effort has yet to officially concede even though a Leon County court judge on Tuesday rejected its last-second attempt for a temporary injunction.
By essentially stifling both efforts before they could get off the ground, the Tribe saved itself anywhere from $150 million to $250 million fighting the proposals on the ballot this fall.
But an even more powerful message was delivered that will have a long-lasting effect for years to come: If you want to do business in Florida, you better check with the Seminole Tribe first.
If not, be prepared to press your luck.