No dice: Richmond casino referendum fails by large margin
Casino PAC concedes as 61% vote no
Richmond’s do-over casino referendum failed at the ballot box Tuesday by a much larger margin than the first casino referendum did in 2021, as about 61% of Richmond voters said no to the $562 million Richmond Grand Resort & Casino.
It was not a good night for gambling interests in Virginia, as voters in Manassas Park also rejected a referendum to allow Churchill Downs to build a Rosie’s Gaming Emporium in their community.
The pro-casino PAC Richmond Wins, Vote Yes issued a statement Tuesday night about the second Richmond casino referendum’s defeat: “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 South Side who poured their hearts into this project.”
Everything was bigger this time, especially spending by the proposed Richmond casino’s corporate backers, Urban One and Churchill Downs, which sank more than $10 million into advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts that included a free Isley Brothers concert next to an early voting facility and subsidized food truck meals for voters through October and November.
But the controversy also was bigger, as the pro-casino side was dogged in recent days by reports of antisemitic and racially insensitive speech on Urban One-owned radio stations in Richmond.
In the end, the gap between “no” voters and “yes” voters was much bigger in 2023, after a narrow defeat of about 1,500 votes in 2021. This year, 64,533 people voted in Richmond, compared to about 79,000 in 2021, although the referendum’s geographical and demographic divide remained similar. With 72 precincts reporting Election Day votes and about 13,506 early votes and 4,705 absentee ballots counted, 39,768 Richmonders voted no and 24,765 people voted yes, a 61.62% to 38.38% margin, according to the Virginia Department of Elections’ website Wednesday.
In 2021, more of the city’s North Side and West End voters — typically whiter and wealthier — voted against the casino referendum, while more South Side and East End residents, in majority Black districts, voted yes. The divide was similar in 2023, with South Side precincts and a few others in Richmond’s East End with a “yes” majority.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, a casino supporter who had put forward a plan to dedicate some of the casino’s tax revenue to providing child care in the city, said in a statement: “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.”
Paul Goldman, a former campaign manager for Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and a key casino opponent, made a statement Tuesday night that included a jab at Stoney.
The proposed casino would have included a 250-room hotel, a 3,000-seat concert venue and a soundstage where Urban One pledged to invest $50 million over 10 years in TV, movie and audio productions. Casino backers estimated that the project would have created an estimated 1,300 permanent jobs and generated $30 million in annual tax revenue.
Unlike in 2021, Urban One joined this time with Kentucky-based Churchill Downs, which last year purchased the assets of Urban One’s previous casino partner, Peninsula Pacific Entertainment. Urban One and Churchill Downs were equal partners in the venture, and the companies spent about four times the amount Urban One spent in 2021, according to campaign finance reports.
The outcome? Extensive door knocking, TV ads, campaign mailers, free music and free food. Urban One-owned Praise 104.7 FM aired a daily “Richmond Grand Update” show that regularly included Cathy Hughes, founder and chairman of Urban One, promoting the project in conversations with host Gary Flowers, and in the final weekend before Election Day, the casino’s backers hosted parties in Richmond’s public housing neighborhoods.
Lushan Phang, owner of the Taste Good Authentic Jamaican Flavor food truck, was at the city registrar’s office parking lot on Nov. 1, handing out meals to a few takers. He said that at the end of the day, he would invoice the casino campaign $15 per lunch distributed. Phang noted it was way busier at the South Side location the previous week, compared to the registrar’s office north of the James River.
With a budget just below $200,000, casino opponents — including Paul Goldman, the Ukrop family and NewMarket Chairman CEO Thomas E. Gottwald — made their cause visible with yard signs and letters sent to city residents, as well as an airplane carrying a sign reading “VOTE NO CASINO … AGAIN” flying over the Richmond Folk Festival in October.
This year, casino proponents used their large budget and platform to get out the vote — but also contributed some negative commentary against casino opponents.
In October and early November, Hughes and two Urban One radio hosts used their radio broadcasts not only to promote the project but also to denigrate casino opponents. Speaking on the Praise 104.7 FM “Richmond Grand Update” program, Hughes criticized U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, who opposed the 2021 referendum, and two Black activists who have spoken out about the casino, Allan-Charles Chipman and Chelsea Higgs Wise, whom Flowers called “self-hating Black people.” Hughes, in an Oct. 18 clip, characterized middle-class Black Richmonders who oppose the casino vs. working-class Black Richmonders who support it as “house n——s and field n——s.”
In another instance, guest radio host Preston Brown was banned from Urban One’s 99.5 FM The Box for using “antisemitic language” to criticize a casino opponent, according to a statement from the Richmond Wins, Vote Yes PAC. The No Means No Casino website posted an audio clip of Brown saying on 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.”
In a statement released Friday, Goldman accepted an apology offered by Hughes’ son, Urban One CEO Alfred Liggins. But Goldman added, “The whole pro-casino side seem oblivious to the damage they have done to Richmond. … It isn’t merely their failure to apologize to all the people individually singled out, but to our city as a whole, 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.”
However, several prominent Richmond leaders and organizations gave the project their approval, including ChamberRVA, the Metropolitan Business League, Richmond Region Tourism, former Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones and the Richmond NAACP, and several local union chapters joined the pro-casino side, focusing on jobs that casino officials said would provide an average of $55,000 in annual compensation — although that was likely to come out to about $16 an hour, depending on health care coverage, according to a VPM story.