Aaron Brownstein’s gambling addiction was so bad that he’d regularly blow his entire paycheck on scratch tickets. He agreed with mayoral candidate Henry Fernandez Wednesday that allowing Keno in restaurants would mean more people getting hooked just like he did.
Brownstein made that statement after Democratic mayoral candidate Fernandez brought his anti-Keno campaign pitch to a job-training graduation ceremony in Fair Haven.
At the same time, two other Democratic mayoral candidates echoed Fernandez’s anti-Keno argument.
Fernandez has started a petition to overturn the recent state General Assembly decision to allow Keno machines—which offer a kind of digital speed-bingo called the “crack” of electronic gaming—in hundreds of Connecticut restaurants and bars in order to help plug a budget gap. The Keno provision was slipped into the state budget without public discussion. The state is expecting is expected to raise $3.8 million in revenue from the game in 2014 and $27 million in 2015.
Brownstein was one of 29 people who graduated Wednesday afternoon from “Recovery University,” a six-week job training program run by Advocacy Unlimited. He’s now a certified Recovery Support Specialist, someone who is himself in recovery from addiction or mental illness and can act as a counselor for others.
Brownstein picked up his diploma at a ceremony at the offices of the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health on Peck Street in Erector Square. Fernandez was a featured speaker at the event.
Fernandez has recently been running hard on his anti-Keno platform, trying to hammer mayoral candidate state Sen. Toni Harp for voting to approve Keno as a way to bring in extra revenue to the state. Keno is set to be allowed in hundreds of restaurants and bars across the state starting early next year. Fernandez argues the game will worsen gambling addiction and disproportionately harm poor people in cities. Harp dismisses the argument as a flimsy campaign ploy.
Keno allows people to gamble on rapid-cycling games of bingo. Players pick numbers for mini-lotteries that run every five to six minutes. Critics call it the “crack cocaine” of electronic gambling.
On Wednesday, in his remarks at the graduation ceremony, Fernandez (pictured) blasted the Keno plan, and took aim at Harp for her defense of the proposal.
He said Keno expansion would increase crime and poverty; “break up families” by causing divorce and suicide; and introduce children to gambling, making them more likely to get addicted. “That is wrong. That is immoral,” he said.
Fernandez quoted Harp as interviewed in this article: “There are some people who have addictive personalities and may have a problem. If they do have a problem, they’ve already” developed it through Connecticut’s lottery or through “ready access to the casinos. ... Anybody who’s going to have a gambling problem already has it.”
“How dare an elected official feel it is acceptable to discard people with addiction problems,” Fernandez said.
He called Harp “out of touch.” He said three liquor stores near his house in Fair Haven are magnets for panhandling, prostitution, and drugs. With Keno, people can expect the same scene outside of restaurants with the game.
Fernandez urged people to sign an anti-Keno petition at www.kidsnotkeno.com.
Fernandez’s anti-Keno message resonated with the Recovery University graduating class Wednesday.
“I used to have a gambling problem,” said Brownstein (pictured). “I think Keno would be bad for New Haven. It would increase gambling.”
Brownstein (pictured) said he hasn’t gambled in nine months. He was addicted to scratch tickets, he said. “I was losing a lot of money and upsetting my parents, so I had to seek help.”
Every time he got paid, his whole check would be gone before he even got home, said Aaron’s mom, Janet Brownstein.
Aaron said he related to Fernandez’s speech. “Maybe I’ll vote for him,” he said.
Ana Gopoian (pictured), one of two class speakers, said she’s also against Keno expansion. She said it would create more gambling addicts, and be a hard decision to reverse. “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”
“I never really realized how big of an impact it could have,” said Erik Alexander, another graduate. “I thought it was just going to be revenue for the state. ... I think I’m going to have to do some research on the other side.”
Graduate Ron Procko said his so is in the Coast Guard in Rhode Island, where Keno is allowed in bars. He said people pour unbelievable amounts of money into Keno. The real addicts, however, are in the Capitol, Procko said. “To me, the problem is the legislature is addicted to spending money.”
Procko said he lives in New Britain, but was so inspred by Fernandez that he’s going to come down and volunteer for the campaign.
Brian Schneider said he agrees with Fernandez, but wasn’t happy that he brought politics into the commencement. ‘This wasn’t the forum,” he said. “This should have been about us. ... He’s a politician. That’s what they do.”
“Crack Keno” Or “Hogwash”?
Two of Fernandez’s fellow Demcoratic mayoral candidates have also come out against Keno.
“People living in poverty have enough vices they’re fighting against,” Hillhouse Principal Kermit Carolina said Wednesday. “They don’t need another temptation to pull them down, particularly crack Keno.”
East Rock Alderman Justin Elicker offered two reasons for opposing Keno expansion: “There wasn’t a public conversation about something that is very controversial. ... There is clear evidence it is addictive. I don’t want to increase the access to things that are addictive when people are trying to get away from them.” We shouldn’t “put it in front of their faces everywhere they go,” Elicker said.
Mayoral candidate Sundiata Keitazulu, on the other hand, said he’s not opposed to Keno in restaurants. He said the issue distracts from the real problems facing New Haven, like unemployment and poverty.
“That’s hogwash, man. The churches are playing bingo for the last 30 years. People enjoy it,” Keitazulu said. “It’s nothing but a form of bingo. ... Stay with the issues. People need jobs. ... People will find any old dumb stuff to talk about.”
Keitazulu, a Newhallville plumber and the self-proclaimed “voice of the people,” went one step further. “I wish they had a casino like Mohegan [Sun] in this city. It would lower taxes greatly.”
In an interview earlier this week, Harp dismissed Fernandez’s arguments as “specious.”
Surrounding states already have Keno, she said. Connecticut already has legalized gambling. “There are some people who have addictive personalities and may have a problem. If they do have a problem, they’ve already” developed it through Connecticut’s lottery or through “ready access to the casinos,” she argued. “Anybody who’s going to have a gambling problem already has it.”
She said the budget directed money to the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to help problem gamblers. (The decision to divert $400,000 in lottery revenue to the “Chronic Gamblers Account” was made by the legislature’s Finance Committee after the budget passed.)
“Keno is an electrified multiple-layered bingo. I don’t know why he feels it’s more addictive than playing the lottery or going to the casinos or the video horse races,” said Harp (pictured). “He can’t show us any studies showing it is any worse” than other forms of gambling.
Bingo games already take place in church halls without apparent problems, Harp added.
In Keno, “players win prizes by correctly guessing some of the numbers generated by a central computer system using a random number generator, rabbit ear, or a wheel system device using numbered balls,” according to a state legislative analysis. Players pick numbers, often based on a birthday or anniversary; then the system selects 20 out of 80 numbers.