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Someone shouted, "Contract!" but Izzy politely rejected the suggestion. After several meetings, they agreed. "It was like seducing a woman," Gay explains. "First you promise her the world, and then you ravage her."
The Havenicks didn't stop with the pulgueros. The 2004 loss taught the family to take nothing for granted. They joined Calder and Miami Jai-Alai on a $6 million advertising campaign and enlisted the help of state Rep. David Rivera, then a top lieutenant for anti-gambling Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio.
They also enlisted track employees. In 2004, Unite Here, the largest gaming employees union, offered to help. The Havenicks and other track owners accepted, but there was a catch: The tracks would have to allow Unite to speak with employees about unionizing if slots were approved.
Employees had long wanted a union, says Jay Mehta, a Unite Here spokesman. And the pari-mutuels saw it as an opportunity to telegraph to voters that slots would be good for workers. "They thought by signing this agreement, they could persuade voters and politicians this had the potential to secure good jobs," Mehta says. "Many companies use that as a tactic when they're negotiating with voters."
Bernie, a track cashier at Flagler since 1995 who asked New Times not to use his last name, saw the election in personal terms. The gray-haired 61-year-old, a regular Willy Loman, has medical problems, so he took the job for health insurance. He and his wife campaigned for the slots and took voters to the polls. "I thought, This will help them make money so they can start offering insurance again," he says.
Last-minute opponents materialized: Animal rights activists juxtaposed the hot Michael Vick scandal with racing greyhounds, and Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina, upset that his city's horse track wasn't part of the slots deal, campaigned against it.
But on January 20, the day of the presidential primary — Hillary Clinton and John McCain swept — Miami-Dade voters also approved slots 63 to 37 percent.
Two months later, the pulgueros got a jolt: They had a week to vacate the premises. "It was really disgusting what they did to us," Gay says. "They even called the cops."
Izzy Havenick says his family owes the flea marketers nothing. "They've been here for 20 years? Well, we've been here for 58," he says.
But Julio Robaina (no relation to the Hialeah mayor), a Republican state representative from the track's district, says Havenick betrayed their trust. "Every local elected official got assurances about not displacing those people," Robaina says. "They didn't keep their promise."
The unionizers also feel deceived. The group sued the Havenicks this past January for failing to honor the 2004 agreement to allow talks with employees.
Izzy wouldn't discuss that lawsuit, but in court records, the family argues the agreement is invalid for various technical reasons. "Our employees have always supported everything we've done here," Izzy says. "They've volunteered; they've worked poll stations. They wanted to protect their jobs." So far, there's been no decision on the suit.
At the track, most employees know nothing about the union. Orquidea Herrera, age 50, has been working as a cashier and waitress at the track since 1995 and earns $8 an hour at the clubhouse's buffet. She can't afford health insurance. "I'm too old to be fishing around for anything else," she says.
Bernie is also disappointed. "It's a real sore point for me," he says.
Marlen Cabrera zigzags through the slot machines at Magic City Casino like a guided missile. She's a dark-skinned, heavyset woman in her mid-40s who plays machine after machine while her husband competes downstairs at the $5/$10 poker tables. Around her, the joint swings like a kaleidoscopic arcade. Bedazzled slots flash neon lights and trill like overzealous Ataris. Little old ladies excitedly pull on levers as if they were playing Dance Dance Revolution.
Cabrera arrived at 6 p.m. with $100. She dropped 30 cents on the Treasures of Machu Picchu and then more on Triple Lucky 7s. "There's a jump at the beginning, and I make a few coins, but it's all downhill from there, and it leaves me pelada [wiped out]" she says. "These machines are thieves. You keep putting money in — out of avarice really — but all you do is lose more."
In two hours, all she had left in her purse were cigarettes and cosmetics. She's not alone. Slots are the most popular attraction at Florida's racinos (a portmanteau of racetrack and casino). In the 2008-09 fiscal year, visitors spent $2.7 billion playing slots, according to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Cabrera and her husband come to Magic City three or four days a week. "When the money's good, we stay until dawn," she says. "And when the money's bad, we stay anyway."
After prevailing in the 2008 vote, the Havenicks began looking for capital. Their goal was to raise $160 million for slot machines, a dog track upgrade, and a casino build-out. As the recession took hold and banks began tightening up, the Havenicks had to settle for a $54 million loan from two local banks, which the family declines to name.
"We had to sell a dream to a bank in the worst economy since the Depression," Izzy says. "We gambled everything on the 2008 election." The loan enabled them to repaint the clubhouse and refurbish the grandstand, which had been closed for a decade. It also allowed for a new 2,000-seat amphitheater, smack in the middle of the track, which has hosted José Feliciano and the Guess Who.