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800px-Medal_slot_machine When New Yorkers go to the polls this November they will be asked to approve a constitutional amendment to legalize casino gambling in the state. The state’s liberal governor, Andrew Cuomo, has made the amendment central to his economic plans for upstate New York and it has been endorsed by New York City’s likely next mayor, “unapologetic progressive,” Bill deBlasio.

The proposition of gambling by New York’s most high profile progressives as a solution to economic challenges would be vexing to an earlier generation of progressives who, rather than seeing it as a solution to economic woes, perceived gambling as a primary cause of them. The mayor whom deBlasio seeks to model himself after, the outspoken progressive Fiorella LaGuardia, had very different views of slot machines and the effects of gambling.

Having witnessed the devastation of gambling first hand growing up, he made confiscation and destruction of slot machines a major goal of his first term. LaGuardia put slot machines on display at the new Radio City Music Hall under the theme “You Can’t Win” to demonstrate to citizens how the slots were rigged against gamblers. Not content with demonstrating the futility of gambling, he sought to destroy slot machines — literally. He personally led a campaign to  smash the machines and toss them into the Long Island Sound . He viewed slot machines as destructive to families and condemned the “boob” who would put his last two dollars in a slot rather than bring home food for his children.

Another prominent liberal of an earlier generation, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s father, Governor Mario Cuomo, a self described “progressive pragmatist,” also  opposed casino gambling  on the same grounds which Mayor LaGuardia did. Memories of his Depression-era childhood in which the men in his neighborhood would pay off the bookies before paying off the credit they owed to his grocer father, persuaded Mario Cuomo that gambling destroyed social trust and was economically regressive.

Considering this progressive tradition of opposition to legalized gambling it is noteworthy that the most vocal opposition to the Governor’s proposed amendment comes from conservatives. Indeed it was the Institute for American Values who this week  reenacted the LaGuardia campaign , smashing a slot machine on the steps of the New York State Capitol in Albany. What’s most remarkable is how today’s conservative opponents are the ones advancing the arguments of the older progressives like Mayor LaGuardia.  It is they who are reminding voters that casinos redistribute wealth from the poorest in society up the ladder towards the most affluent, make no contribution to long term economic growth, and cause social ills in the communities where they are built. Countering these arguments, Andrew Cuomo has cobbled together a coalition to support his amendment, the most vocal of which have been the business leaders who stand to profit from casinos and public sector workers, primarily teacher’s unions, who will be the beneficiary of increased state revenues.

Mayor LaGuardia may have condemned with harsh words the “boob” who squandered his money on the slots, but he also was looking out for him.

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