December 28. 2013 10:29PM

Jim Rubens guided political rivals along a common path to halt casino

Senior Political Reporter

Jim Rubens outside his Etna home, with Mount Croydon in the distance. (MEGHAN PIERCE/Union Leader Correspondent)

Citizens of the Year

2012: Greenland Police Chief Michael Maloney

2011: MooreMart co-founder Paul Moore

2010: David and Jaimie Cates

2009: Sen. Judd Gregg

2008: NH Attorney General Kelly Ayotte

2007: NH Secretary of State Bill Gardner

2006: The New Hampshire Police Officer

2005: Gov. John Lynch

2004: Granite Staters serving in the Armed Forces

For more than a decade, the casino gambling industry has spent ever-increasing amounts of money and has seemed to exert increasing influence in the state Legislature to get a foot in the Granite State's door.

But each time the industry and its supporters tried to push through, they found Jim Rubens of Etna pushing back.

A year ago, as pro-gambling Maggie Hassan prepared to become governor with a new majority of her fellow Democrats in the House, the odds for a casino appeared better than ever.

But after passing the state Senate, a casino bill died in the 400-member House in May by 35 votes.

Rubens, who had chaired the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling for almost as long as the pro-gaming forces had pushed for it, had won again. While he was not the only factor in the outcome, he was a key factor.

Because of that effort, Jim Rubens has been named the New Hampshire Union Leader 2013 Citizen of the Year.

The award recognizes groups or individuals who, in the view of the Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News, have had the biggest influence or effect on New Hampshire in a given year. This is the 10th year for the honor.

The newspapers called Rubens the "face, voice and energy behind the effort - an effort whose success surprised many observers both in and outside of the State House."

"I could never have done it alone," Rubens, 63, said in a recent interview. But, he allowed, "I do credit myself with keeping the coalition together and keeping it broad."

Rubens was a constant presence in legislative halls during the months leading to the vote. He did not try to twist lawmakers' arms, but he provided mounds of information supporting his side.

Former state Republican Party Chairman Steve Duprey has taken over as lead coalition spokesman now that fellow Republican Rubens has resigned to run for U.S. Senate. Duprey marvels at Rubens' ability to quickly research and find studies on a wide range of gambling-related issues.

This year, a newcomer to the extensive anti-gambling network was the arts and entertainment community.

Duprey, formerly on the board of Concord's Capitol Center for the Arts, said the arts sector had not previously recognized the threat to their economic well-being.

But, he said, Rubens "went out and found every research study that's been done on the impact on the arts community and made sure all of that information was distributed to everyone from the Capitol Center to the Palace Theatre to the Verizon arena."

Officials of those facilities were key opponents to the gambling bill in hearings before a legislative "super-committee."

Rubens resigned as coalition chairman shortly after the House vote. He announced in September that he would try to unseat U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. He'll have to win a GOP primary first.

He said he realizes that his Senate bid, like his gambling fight, will be a "David vs. Goliath" affair.

He said, "The experience of fighting a fight this intense all these years kept my political instincts in tune, taught me more about political strategy and coalition building."

Rubens' opposition to gambling began when, as a state senator in the mid-1990s, he received a $5,000 check from a Chicago resident he didn't know.

"It was illegal to take a check that large at the time, and when I tracked it down, it turned out to be someone associated with the gambling industry."

"It was an obvious attempt to buy my vote," he said. "It revolted me. I returned the check."

He believes casino gambling would lead to "dominance of state politics by a single business entity. We already have lottery and charity gambling, which do not entail these dominance and corruption risks."

The 2013 legislative session presented the greatest challenge. Rubens knew the battleground would again be in the House, which he says, "you can't buy."

His approach was to "find out what each representative was concerned about, and it varies."

Rubens said the coalition continues to be a cross-section of Republicans and Democrats who disagree on many issues but are unified against casino gambling.

"It is the most broad-based coalition in the state," he said. "People at our meetings had never spoken to each other before. After fighting each other on almost every other issue, they were now working constructively, arm in arm, with such friendship. It was an incredible experience."

What he called "Liberty Republicans" are people who "don't like monopolies," said Rubens. Other foes include "Some (who) had a family member who was addicted to gambling. Others don't want to see government grow in any way and are concerned about a new revenue source growing government. Some are concerned about political corruption and influence.

"And liberal Democrats are hoping for another revenue source, an income or sales tax. They call it tax reform."

Anti-gambling Democrat state Rep. Marjorie Smith of Durham cited Rubens' ability "to collect data and testimony from other states. I believe that for people who were struggling to figure out what to do, that kind of approach was very, very helpful."

Smith supports Shaheen for reelection, but said that on gambling, "Jim was successful in bringing people together. The cross-fertilization to create a broad network was very important."

Fergus Cullen, like Duprey, a former Republican Party chairman, said that "all the money is on one side in the gambling debate.

"The casinos have lobbyists, consultants, polling, and sometimes direct mail and media. The opposition is exclusively grassroots.

"It's easy for people to get engaged for six months or a year, but it's hard for people to be engaged year in and year out," said Cullen. "That's where Jim's tenacity comes in."

A gambling bill will be back in the new year, this time with a detailed regulatory structure put forth by a new Gambling Regulatory Oversight Authority.

Rubens is confident that with the coalition and CasinoFree New Hampshire combining forces with Duprey and Democratic former state Sen. Harold Janeway as bipartisan lead spokesmen, the effort is in "superb" hands.

He stressed that while campaigning for the Senate, he has not shied away from pro-gambling areas of the state.

"I get blowback," he said, "but my message is 'You've seen my skills organizationally. And I'd ask you to support me because I'd like to take those skills to Washington and deal with the jobs, debt problems.'"