Several times over the past month or so I have gone out to Derby Lane to hang out at the dog track and talk to people about The End.
Derby Lane is a St. Petersburg institution. Founded in 1925, it is the oldest continuously operated greyhound racetrack in the nation, now employing about 400 people. It’s a family run business, too: The current CEO is a descendant of the track’s original founder.
During my visit, the CEO, who bears the ironic name of Richard Winning, spun story after story about the track’s history. He talked about how his great-grandfather played golf with Babe Ruth, how Joe DiMaggio left Marilyn Monroe in an idling car in the parking lot while he ran in to place his bets, how Tampa mobster Santo Trafficante Jr. and his well-dressed minions would hang out and wager on the fastest dogs.
Florida was once the center of the U.S. dog racing industry. Just two years ago, 11 of the nation’s 17 dog tracks were here. Now everything has to shut down as of Dec. 31 because Florida’s voters approved a constitutional amendment that said so. Another irony: The measure they passed, Amendment 13, was not at all lucky for the gamblers.
From the time the starter’s gate flies open until the winning greyhound bolts over the finish line, a dog race takes just 30 seconds. Shutting down the tracks required a much longer and more arduous journey — one that began 10 years ago, according to Carey Theil, executive director of Grey2K USA, an animal welfare organization that spearheaded the amendment drive.
When I talked to Theil last week, he told me the Florida Legislature is to blame for the shutdown that’s throwing hundreds of people out of work. The story he told me showed how our state politics has gone to the dogs.
More lapdog than watchdog
Theil had experience working with the New Hampshire and Massachusetts legislatures, and he’s ranked as a national master in chess. But spending a decade trying to learn the game played by lawmakers and lobbyists in Tallahassee blew his mind.
At first, his organization pushed only to reform the dog-racing industry. Theil said he found it remarkable that the political powerbrokers seemed “open to our issue.” Whenever he asked for a hearing, he got one, he said.
“We were given an opportunity to make our case in a way that never would have happened in New Hampshire,” he said. “The political culture there is so closed, it wouldn’t have happened.”
But that apparent openness never led anywhere, he said. The Legislature proved to be more lapdog than watchdog when it came to the gambling industry.
“We were given a free rein in the Legislature to have a debate, until we got to the part about bills passing,” he said. First, the bill his group was pushing would pass the House but not the Senate. A year later, the bill would pass the Senate but not the House.
Between 2011 and 2018, the Legislature considered 17 bills proposed by Grey2K that would have reformed greyhound racing, he said. There were bills to require greyhound injury reporting, to outlaw the use of anabolic steroids in dog racing, and to let tracks that were losing money on dog racing end it while still offering poker and simulcasting races held elsewhere.
That last one would have benefited several of Florida’s tracks, he said. The betting at the tracks had been in decline since the 1980s and, according to state records, they were losing a cumulative $35 million a year on the greyhounds while making a meager profit on the other types of betting, he said.
But not one of the 17 bills passed. Not even the one that banned the use of steroids.
Inevitably, Theil said, toward the end of each session, some legislator would say not to worry, explaining, “This will go in the gambling bill next year.” They would dangle the promise of a comprehensive revision of all the state’s laws on racing, slot machines, and Native American casinos. Of course, that comprehensive gambling bill somehow never materialized.
Theil initially assumed the racetracks’ lobbyists were cleverly avoiding a head-on confrontation over better treatment for the greyhounds, thus avoiding bad publicity.
After all, the tracks employed thousands of people and forked over millions of dollars to the state every year. They hired some of Tallahassee’s top lobbyists, too. They could get whatever they wanted, he figured. But then he realized that the tracks were frequently fighting with each other, trying to get some advantage over their competitors. They seldom offered a united front.
Eventually, Theil said, he realized that something else was going on: The legislators were stringing both sides along for their own benefit. Legislators would use the threat of passing the Grey2K-backed legislation to get the racing industry to dip into its coffers and make big campaign contributions so the threat would go away.
“Both parties would use the tracks as an ATM,” he said.
But what no one in the Legislature or in the dog-racing industry realized, he said, was the mistake they were making. Every time Grey2K got a chance to testify about the harm being done to the dogs, their case got free publicity and made a few converts.
That’s what led to the 2018 showdown at the ballot box.
Dogging the tracks into oblivion
Every 10 years, a group called the Constitution Revision Commission meets to propose updates and other tweaks to state government’s guiding document. Theil and others from the animal welfare side met with CRC members, including state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa. They presented him with some options. The one Lee chose to support, Theil said, was the nuclear option: a total ban on greyhound racing.
“I was skeptical,” Theil admitted. “I thought, ‘There is no way in a million years they will pass our stuff.’”
But the commission agreed with Lee that the decision belonged to the voters and put Amendment 13 on the ballot. Theil and his allies raised $3 million for TV ads that played up the greyhound industry’s record of injuries and deaths. The industry spent far less money and focused on bland billboards and yard signs that had little impact.
On election day 2018, nearly 70 percent of the voters said yes to Amendment 13, to the shock of the track and kennel owners.
Over and over I heard Winning and others in the industry say the voters must have been confused by the ballot language or speculate that they were tired by the time they got to that part of the ballot. These were the only explanations that made sense to them. They could not accept that so many voters had rejected their way of doing business, something the Legislature never even saw a need to reform.
The Legislature’s cynical games with the issue — stringing Grey2K along, playing the two sides against each other to raise campaign cash — paved the way for the ban, Theil said. If legislative leaders had passed even one of their bills, the organization would have been unlikely to seek a constitutional amendment.
“I think because of the legislative resistance to reform, the pressure built and built until it came out in the CRC process,” he said.
This is not an isolated instance.
Over the years, Florida’s voters have frequently expressed their frustration with the Legislature by passing amendments to the state Constitution. They wanted to see more money spent on saving environmental land, so they passed an amendment commanding the Legislature to do so.
They wanted to give ex-felons a chance to vote again, so they passed an amendment decreeing it. But in those cases, the Legislature was able to thwart the public’s wishes by changing the rules after passage.
The Legislature couldn’t do anything about the greyhound racing ban, though. Instead, powerful interests proposed a new constitutional amendment — Amendment 4 on the 2020 ballot — designed to make it much harder than before to amend the Constitution.
Fortunately, there were plenty of watchdogs barking a warning about this proposed amendment and voters said no — the measure didn’t meet the 60 percent threshold to pass.
To Theil, this is another lesson about a scary aspect of Florida politics.
“I saw things in the political culture that were really shocking,” he said. “The ability of special interest groups to move money around and drop millions on a ballot question and without anyone ever knowing who’s behind it — that’s really toxic.”
Maybe Florida politicians will come to see that as a problem that needs fixing — if we voters dog them about it the way Grey2K dogged the greyhound industry into oblivion.