In the spring of 1995, shortly after city voters overwhelmingly supported proposition of a casino complex in a non-binding referendum to influence state legislators opposed to gaming expansion, Mayor Joe Ganim was lamenting Donald Trump’s flip-flop promising financial support of the referendum for a gaming bill that was eventually rejected by the State Senate. Pondering Trump’s double-cross one day, Ganim asserted to me “I’m pissed Trump lied to me.”
“He lied to me too,” I responded to Ganim.
“He can lie to you all he wants,” Joe returned. “He’s paying you.”
It had not occurred to me that it was okay to lie simply because someone was paying you, but entrepreneurs, politicians, people of all shapes, sizes and colors can rationalize anything if it suits their level of capitalistic narcissism.
At the time I was a consultant to Trump who had hired me to serve as his eyes and ears and media spokesperson in Connecticut during the hotly debated expansion of casino gaming in Connecticut’s largest city. When Trump hired me in December of 1994–I worked for him for about four years–he was clear about what he wanted: if expanded gaming passes I want it, if I can’t have it I want to kill it.
The state’s gaming compact with two tribal nations–25 percent of the slot take in exchange for a gaming monopoly–was impenetrable without finding a way to make them financially whole or making them a partner. Trump had purchased the abandoned 5-acre Jenkins Valve location (now the site of the ballpark at Harbor Yard) as a prospective site for a gaming facility. Trump had to be in play because he feared gaming expansion to a Fairfield County community such as Bridgeport would cannibalize his Atlantic City gaming interests.
Las Vegas gaming entrepreneur Steve Wynn and the Mashantucket Pequots, operators of Foxwoods, had a leg up on Trump, spending millions lobbying the state legislature for gaming expansion. Lower Fairfield County legislators opposed expanded gaming citing traffic issues, gambling addiction and attraction of criminal element.
For supporters of gaming it meant jobs, entertainment and tax dollars to an economically struggling city. Trump had floated an economic patriot missile of his own to intercept gaming expansion–a massive non-gaming waterfront development in Bridgeport. It gained no traction.
The non-binding referendum was a means to persuade reluctant legislators the tired factory town wanted it.
Wynn promised to invest a small fortune to help passage of the referendum. Ganim, businesses community and other interests had urged Trump to support it financially.
Trump can be dismissive of an opinion, but he’s not dismissive about asking for one.
He asked me what I thought about his financial participation. I told him the referendum was going to pass overwhelmingly with or without his financial infusion. If he wanted to build goodwill in case gaming expansion passed or desired to do a non-gaming development in the city, it was better to participate as a measure of insurance. $25K to Trump is a blow of the nose. But it was a tricky balancing act for Trump, how to keep himself in play for gaming even though he wanted to kill it for fear it would be awarded to a competitor. So Trump agreed to pony up $25,000 to the effort which was seen as respectable participation by local interests.
Trump had unleashed his representatives and local lawyers to inform he would play.
As the March referendum approached, no check. I checked on the check. “It’s coming.”
Days before the referendum, no check. One day at a rally to mobilize voter turnout for the referendum, attorney John Stafstrom whose law firm Pullman & Comley represented Steve Wynn, mischievously reached into my jacket pocket. “I’m checking for a check from Trump.”
Ganim asked me, “Where’s your guy’s check?”
So did many others.
So I checked with my client again who had promised the check.
“I’m getting pressure from Atlantic City not to be involved,” he said.
“So we’re not going to play?”
“Fuck the damn check. And by the way I don’t want you doing a damn thing to help that referendum?”
“Whether I help or not, it’s going to pass overwhelmingly.”
“Good, so don’t do anything. You’re going to have a bad couple of days up there so suck it up.”
So on the day of the referendum basically I had my nose pressed up against the window delivering the news, after promising a check, that it would not arrive. I had hoped Trump would cough it up to cover some referendum clean-up costs. Nope.
Although the referendum passed with more than 80 percent support, the odds of legislative passage were still long, according to Trump lobbyists and lawyers in Hartford. The morning after I spoke to Trump by phone.
“Is everyone mad at me?”
“They feel lied to.”
“They’ll get over it. Come up with something to give me cover.”
“Okay, let’s issue a statement that you’re sensitive to the growing perception of casino entities trying to buy elections. Let the people decide without special interests sticking their noses in it.”
“I think I’ve been paying you too much money but I like the sound of that. Let’s go with it.”
And we did. Did anyone buy it? Of course not.
But a guy like Trump believes he can negotiate his way out of anything. Just pivot to something else unapologetically.
Representing Trump, be it for a gaming issue or for a political campaign, is like riding a bronco, every day’s a ticket to the rodeo. He’s not a lunatic inside the four walls of discussion. He gets in trouble when the lights are on him and the cameras roll and he morphs into a sort of alien life form, freelancing things uncontrollably beyond message. That’s when his campaign consultants reach for the whiskey bottle and revolver.
“You’re gonna stay on message, right?”
Eeeeeeeeee! After all, he’s paying them, right?
And it’s why Trump is about 10 points down in the latest presidential polls, unable to grow his base beyond the narrow band of Trumpers not wide enough for a general election victory. He cannot get out of his own way.
Right now the electoral map does not add up for Trump against Hillary Clinton whose level of trustworthiness is marginally better than Trumps. A majority of voters in the latest polls believe she has a stronger temperament for the job. Most female voters are gagging at the thought of him being president. But he still hasn’t completely imploded in the minds of some voters. Just imagine if Trump could yogi himself to act like an adult for one week. My god the polls just might shift. Anyone betting this is gonna happen?
(Footnote: The Trump-owned Jenkins Valve property became the site of the ballpark in 1998. Trump refused to pay taxes on the property and he deeded the property over to the city in exchange for tax forgiveness. A ballpark was built.)