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Kelly's bet has yet to pay off.

Byline: Albert B. Southwick

COLUMN: ALBERT B. SOUTHWICK

Gov. Patrick's decision to allow three casinos in Massachusetts to ease the burden on state taxpayers brings me back to the days when Frankie Kelly was promoting a sweepstakes plan for Massachusetts. He said that it would lower property taxes across the state by 40 percent.

Gov. Patrick's plan is equally optimistic. He envisages it as raising $2 billion and creating thousands of jobs. Gambling proposals tend to bring out the hyperbole in politicians. Mr. Kelly is a prime example.

On February 4. 1967, an editorial in the Telegram titled "The 29th Time" noted that Francis E. Kelly had introduced his sweepstakes bill for the 29th straight year. We scoffed at his persistence and ridiculed his claim that a sweepstakes would net the state $50 million a year and lower property taxes by 40 percent. The Telegram, along with other newspapers across the state, loftily advised the Legislature not to chase the illusion of fool's gold. The Legislature obligingly once again turned down the proposal - for the last time.

Frankie Kelly (1904-1982) was a colorful political figure. "Colorful" is a term used by newspapers when they want to avoid lawsuits. It covers a multitude of sins and crimes, including such things as defalcations, bribes, embezzlements and such. Mr. Kelly managed to avoid being tarred directly with any of those, but he repeatedly strayed into what was euphemistically referred to as "ethically dubious" territory. These forays were well publicized in the press, but they did not prevent Mr. Kelly's victories at the polls. In 1936 he ran for lieutenant governor and beat the redoubtable Leverett Saltonstall. It was the only general election that Mr. Saltonstall ever lost.

After a series of disappointments and mishaps, Mr. Kelly ran for attorney general in 1949 and won. He held that office for four years. But he was an embarrassment to the Democratic Party, and he lost four straight campaigns to get the nomination for governor.

But he never lost his fame as the godfather of the sweepstakes campaign. On April 6, 1972, then in retirement, he was given the honor of drawing the first ticket in the new Massachusetts lottery. It was an honor well deserved.

Although the current generation may find it hard to believe, Massachusetts had no state-approved gambling program in 1971. It had outlawed state lotteries in 1832, after a series of scandals. The other New England states did the same. There was no legal lottery in New England from 1832 to 1963, when New Hampshire adopted its sweepstakes. After that it was only a matter of time.

That's not to say that gambling was unknown in those long years. On January 17, 1888, the Telegram ran a story with the title: "LOTTERIES ARE EPIDEMIC." The story was a detailed expose of how church groups, service organizations and others were circumventing the law against public gambling and it predicted that, if nothing was done, Worcester would soon become another New Orleans as a gambling sinkhole.

"Thus far" proclaimed the newspaper, "it has attacked the highest and the lowest extremes of society - the church and the barroom . . . It is an epidemic that in the end leads young men to steal, squander their earnings and to gamble in dead earnest."

When a Catholic priest, the Rev. Griffin, planned a raffle for the sale of his house on Vernon Street, the Telegram was on him like a bull taunted by a red flag. The publicity caused the raffle to be called off, which made Rev. Griffin unhappy.

But back to Frankie Kelly. He was an example of how persistence pays off. For 30 years and more, he dangled the glittering bauble of a state lottery before the eyes of the electorate. After 1960, when Massachusetts legalized parimutuel betting at the racetracks, Mr. Kelly adopted a new tactic. He slammed his enemies - "the powerful bookies, racketeers, the horse and dog interests" who were protecting their turf by opposing the sweepstakes. He claimed that at least $2 billion was being gambled every year in the state.

That figure is believable to anyone who remembers the bingo games in churches, the horse parlors on Front Street, the surreptitious dealings in barber shops and on factory floors. Betting pools were to be found everywhere. When Mr. Kelly pointed out that opposition to the lottery was largely hypocritical, many agreed.

Lotteries and raffles have a long history in this state. In 1810 Isaiah Thomas petitioned the state for a $100,000 lottery to help finance his new project, the American Antiquarian Society. He was turned down. But many a bridge, canal and turnpike was built with the help of the gambling instinct. In 1787, Massachusetts was hard hit by the depression that led to Shays' Rebellion. The Legislature authorized a lottery of 7 million acres of land in Maine, then part of Massachusetts. Tickets cost $200 and the prizes ranged from whole townships of 21,000 acres to plots of 160 acres. The aim was to raise 180,000 pounds ($500,000 in continental currency).

So there is a long history and a varied background to the idea of gambling. Gov. Patrick may convince the Legislature that the state needs three casinos. Maybe so. But don't hold your breath while you wait for your property taxes to go down. Frankie Kelly promised a 40 percent reduction if the sweepstakes became law.

We're still waiting.

Albert B. Southwick's column appears regularly in the Telegram & Gazette.
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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Nov 26, 2009
Words:913
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