By Terrence McCoy
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By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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The PAC, Floridians for a Level Playing Field, has spent $14 million on pari-mutuel-friendly ballot initiatives since 2000. In 2004, they pushed state voters to approve a complicated ballot initiative that would allow Miami-Dade and Broward to cast ballots. If local voters agreed, pari-mutuels, including horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons, would be allowed to install lucrative slot machines.
That vote was extraordinarily contentious. Religious groups, Bush, Disney, and the Indian tribes spent $6 million to campaign against the measure. The pari-mutuels countered with a $16 million advertising campaign. In the end, a slim majority, 50.8 percent, approved it.
But later, 53 percent of Miami-Dade voters rejected the idea, while Broward, where the corporations spent more on advertising, embraced it.
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Izzy Havenick says the vote was devastating to Fred, who was then already battling emphysema: "My father was a boisterous man, and it crushed him to lose something he'd worked so hard for 25 years to get." A year later, Fred died. He remains such a popular figure around the track that his 2006 obituary still hangs in a clubhouse betting window.
For the next election, Izzy says, they were determined to hold nothing back.
At Century Marketplace's outdoor flea market on Le Jeune Road, Orlando Gay stabs his gutting knife into a fresh Ecuadorian blue marlin. He fillets the bloody block of fish as one would swipe a credit card.
Gay, a stout Cuban with a Charles Bronson mustache and booming voice, has been a fishmonger since 1985, five years after he arrived during Mariel. For most of the past quarter-century, he worked at the Flagler flea market. He was one of the original pulgueros.
The flea market was his only job, and it was lucrative enough that he was able to buy several storefronts and a seafood restaurant in nearby Flagami. "My daughter grew up there," he says, referring to the dog-track flea market. "Fish paid for her college education."
But last June, the Havenicks evicted the market. Though Gay and the 400 pulgueros had supported with sweat and blood the referendum to allow slots in Dade, the flea market no longer fit the family's vision for the place.
Gay says he "lost a chunk" of his life: "I had a cow that gave four buckets of milk a day, and now I got a goat with a couple of broken legs."
After the 2004 vote, the Broward casinos didn't immediately turn a profit. The jai alai fronton, dog track, and horse tracks invested hundreds of millions in the slots and improving their facilities. Pompano Park dropped a sick $230 million to turn itself into a Valhalla of gambling, and Calder rushed through an $85 million renovation to be ready for this year's Super Bowl. A conservative legislature set taxes on the new slots at 50 percent, which was high but not unprecedented. Pennsylvania's casinos pay 55 percent on slots, and New York's fork out 78 percent.
The Havenicks and other Miami-Dade pari-mutuels such as Calder Race Course and Miami Jai-Alai didn't give up. They continued to invest heavily in lobbying county officials for a new vote and came up with a canny strategy. In July, Izzy approached Miami-Dade commissioners about setting a new vote on the casinos the day of the upcoming presidential primary. When the first ballot was rejected in Dade, turnout was a measly 14 percent, mostly die-hards who were elderly and conservative. With the primary, there would be more voter participation. Commissioners approved that date by nine to one, with Katy Sorenson as the sole dissenter.
Then the slots backers mobilized forces. A few months before the 2008 vote, hundreds of the pulgueros powwowed with Izzy Havenick at a rare meeting below the grandstand. The 32-year-old Flagler vice president talked about the future.
Most old hands had seen Izzy grow up. He was the chubby kid who mulched the track when he was grounded. To the pulgueros, he was a cipher. Izzy had spent the track's boom years studying photography at the University of Miami, living in one of the residence halls that bore his grandmother's name.
The flea marketers had heard rumors the family was preparing to sell the ten-acre property to a condo developer. "Most people didn't have part-times — this was it," says Jorge Garcia, a stringy Cuban with lank hair, who had been at the flea market since 1985. "You spent all week gathering merchandise, and you worked on the weekends." On any given weekend, he says, he made $5,000.
At the meeting, Izzy delivered a grim prognosis. "We were honest with them," the track owner says now. "I said, 'Unless you help us, come next year, you may not be here anymore.'" He told them the vote was a make-or-break deal. "If we lost, we'd sell the land," he says.
Flagler was losing nearly $8 million a year, he told the group. The family just couldn't keep the crown jewel of its business (the Havenicks also owned tracks in Fort Myers and Wisconsin) afloat without help. They needed casino-style gaming.
The meeting was calm. "They asked us to campaign for them," Garcia says. "They bought us T-shirts. They asked us to tell our clients to vote yes on slots."