This story was published in collaboration with the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO.
Out-of-state developers have poured a record $8.1 million into a referendum campaign to allow the construction of a resort casino in Virginia’s state capital, far-and-away the highest sum for a local election in the commonwealth.
Two companies, Urban One of Maryland and Churchill Downs of Kentucky, have each given more than $4 million to a committee called Richmond Wins, a sum that dwarfs the amount of money raised in every Virginia legislative race and ballot initiative in state history, according to an analysis of campaign finance data by OpenSecrets.
If approved, the referendum would permit developers to move forward on plans to build a proposed $562 million gambling venue in Richmond. Richmond voters in 2021 rejected a similar proposal, the only one of five Virginia cities to thwart casino proposals at the ballot.
The record-breaking spending dramatically ups the ante for national casino developers to make inroads into the commonwealth.
In addition to the $8.1 million campaign warchest set up in September, the developers have also steered more than $320,000 to Democratic and Republican elected officials in the Virginia Senate, House of Delegates, the Richmond mayor and city council members since 2021.
Casino opponents have mustered just a fraction of the proponent’s funding for the campaign.
“This makes David and Goliath look like a fair fight,” said Paul Goldman, a political strategist and former chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party, who is leading his second campaign against the casino. “This is like David versus Goliath and his entire family.”
The Richmond campaign follows a years-long effort to build broad, bipartisan support for the controversial project, which voters rejected 51-49% in 2021.
Two years ago, pro-casino referendum committees committed between $342,000 and $1.3 million on successful efforts to pass similar referendums in Bristol, Danville, Portsmouth and Norfolk. This year, Richmond Wins has already spent $2.9 million on the ballot initiative, according to campaign finance reports filed on Sept. 15. The reports, reviewed by OpenSecrets and the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO, cover spending through Aug. 31.
A spokesperson for Richmond Wins told OpenSecrets and VCIJ that developers aim to reach voters in every city neighborhood. To that end, the campaign has already spent about $479,000 to canvas the city, sending supporters to knock on voters’ doors and sell them on the casino directly. Developers have also lobbied residents at community events hosted by neighborhood associations and city council members. Two more sessions are planned next week.
Evidence of casinos’ economic benefits is mixed, and referendum opponents argue that the proposed gambling venue will exploit low-income neighborhoods, siphoning money from already-disadvantaged local communities in Richmond and surrounding counties. A 2019 analysis by the state Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission found that a casino in Richmond would generate $297 million a year, but only 12% of that revenue would come from out-of-state visitors.
Goldman has put about $78,000 into a rival ballot committee called No Means No Casino, which began paying for anti-casino ads on social media earlier this month.
The anti-casino committee received an additional $125,000 from local philanthropists James and Barbara Ukrop but remains outmatched in terms of money — and political capital.
Mayor Levar Stoney and Richmond City Council members, who voted unanimously to hold a second referendum, have thrown their political weight behind Urban One and Churchill Downs, claiming the casino in South Richmond will boost the local economy.
The developers have also secured the support of the influential casino and hospitality workers union, Unite Here. On Sept. 7, the union formed its own referendum committee called Richmonders for Good Jobs. Eight days later, the committee received $800,000 from Richmond Wins, according to campaign finance reports filed Wednesday. On Monday, Unite Here also announced plans to canvas the city in favor of the casino.
Union organizers did not respond to requests for comment.
In 2020, the Virginia General Assembly approved legislation to allow developers to build large casino resorts with voter approval in five cities. After the Richmond referendum failed, city officials launched an effort to put the issue back on the ballot. State legislators inserted language in the state budget that prevented a second referendum in 2022, but they did not include a similar provision in this year’s spending bill, which the General Assembly passed on Aug. 31 and Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed into law.
Urban One and Churchill Downs have steered donations to influential state lawmakers in both parties. Urban One has donated about $161,000 to Democrats and Republicans since 2021, including $77,500 to Democratic state Sen. Louise Lucas.
Lucas, who defeated state Sen. Lionel Spruill (D-Chesapeake) in a tightly-contested June primary, not only championed the 2020 legislation legalizing casino gambling in Virginia but was also part of budget negotiations. She also blocked an effort by Petersburg — an economically distressed city 45-minutes south of the state capital — from holding its own casino referendum after the one in Richmond failed.
In addition, Urban One CEO Alfred Liggins has donated about $125,000 to state and local candidates over the last two years, including $10,000 each to Richmond City Council members Ann-Frances Lambert and Michael Jones during their bids for the Virginia House of Delegates.
Lambert lost the Democratic nomination to first-time candidate Rae Cousins in June. Jones went uncontested in the Democratic primary election and is the only candidate on the ballot for the 77th House District.
Churchill Downs, which hasn’t been active in Virginia politics before this year, donated an additional $15,000 to the Virginia Democratic Party, $10,000 to the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and $10,000 to the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus, according to campaign finance reports.
Richmond city officials anticipate that the casino will generate $30 million in annual tax revenue. Stoney announced a proposal earlier this month to use $19 million to expand child care access for low-income families. Developers also agreed to pay the city $26.5 million upfront if voters approve the referendum, which the city plans to use to develop local parks and recreation centers, build two childcare centers, and fund a Child Care Education Trust Fund.
Urban One, a media company with no experience developing casinos, claims the gaming resort will create 1,300 full- and part-time jobs with good pay. Plans call for a full gambling floor with slot machines and table games, along with a 250-room hotel, 3,000-seat concert venue, dining options and 55-acre outdoor park.
The conservative nonprofit Family Foundation formed a separate committee to oppose the casino referendum known as the Richmond Anti-Corruption League, but the committee has not reported any contributions or expenditures on campaign finance reports.