The four candidates in the Republican primary for the open seat representing Texas House District 122 largely agree on many issues — a tighter border, property tax relief, protecting gun ownership — but their stances on the prospect of legalized casino gambling in Texas put their differences in sharper relief.

The question of whether the state should legalize casino gambling was posed at a candidate forum on Thursday hosted by the North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce in partnership with other local chambers. A small audience of business owners attended for the promise of getting to better know the candidates vying for the North Bexar County seat.

The four candidates, Adam Blanchard, Mark Dorazio, Elisa Chan and Mark Cuthbert, hope to replace Republican state Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio), who has opted not to run for reelection. Larson was first elected to the seat in 2010 and in recent years increasingly bucked his party. He was the sole Republican vote against the party’s recent controversial bills on elections and “critical race theory,” and he recently introduced a failed bill to carve out exceptions for the near-total abortion ban, which he voted for.

While candidates at the forum talked at length about national issues like the border and the labor market, the casino question presented an opportunity for the candidates to differentiate themselves on a practical and narrow topic — one at a tense intersection between traditional social conservatism and Republicans’ commitment to pro-business policies.

The casino issue has long been a back-burner topic among Texas lawmakers and tourism industry leaders, though pressure has built in recent years. This past legislative session saw a multimillion-dollar lobbying effort by a Nevada gaming empire the Texas Tribune called “easily the biggest campaign to expand gambling in Texas that the state has seen in a long time.”

The resulting bill, which would have allowed Texas voters to consider whether to allow resort casinos in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin, failed to make it to the floor of either chamber in the session, which was dominated by the February winter storm and voting laws. But the gaming company, Las Vegas Sands, as well as Republicans who supported the legislation, have made clear the issue will get another hearing next session, according to the Tribune.

The bill would have allowed Texas voters to consider whether to allow integrated resorts with casinos in the state’s four largest metropolitan areas: Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin.

The fact that the topic came up at all at Thursday’s local forum is another indicator of growing interest in it.

“We’ve danced around this one for years and years and years,” said Kevin Wolff, the former Bexar County commissioner moderating the forum. “What should our state do in regards to state gambling?”

Blanchard, a trucking business owner who describes himself as a practical-minded serial entrepreneur who emphasizes job creation, voiced enthusiastic support for legalizing gambling. Every state around Texas has casinos, Blanchard said. “That looks like tax dollars going out of the state.”

Blanchard said casino gambling could create a new tax revenue stream that would help relieve the pressure on property taxes to fund education, health care and other existing spending areas. “If we have the means of building up other revenue sources that can help us combat this property tax issue, why aren’t we doing it?” he said.

He also said it would bolster economic activity in tourism and in real estate.

Dorazio, a longtime local GOP leader and construction business owner, struck a skeptical tone in his answer.

“Sure, there’s always an economic gain by something like that, but we need to study some of the other areas that have done this,” he said, questioning how it might affect residents in the long run.

“What is the true cost-to-advantage we have to suffer for somebody who has a brother-in-law — like myself — who was addicted to [gambling] and lost his family?” he asked.

House District 122 candidate Elisa Chan during a forum hosted by the North San Antonio Chamber.
House District 122 candidate Elisa Chan participates in a forum hosted by the North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce on Thursday. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Chan, an engineering business owner and former City Council member, sounded cautiously open to the idea, though she spoke only briefly on the topic itself, concluding that it could be “looked into.”

She started her answer by saying she would need to better understand the economic impact casino gambling would bring but acknowledged concerns about a possible “moral impact” to individuals and families.

She said Texas’ economic diversity sets it apart from the states surrounding it with casinos, making new revenue for the state less of a priority. “So the question is do we have enough — and perhaps we do, I think we do — economic strength and potential business growth to give us the revenue for whatever we need to do.” She also cautioned that governments waste money, which she said she’s seen firsthand. “No matter how much money we get, if we don’t control spending, we’re not going to get what we want.”

Cuthbert, a USAA executive and Air Force veteran, said the issue should be decided by voters in a referendum.

“I generally have a clear and strong point of view about most policy issues,” the Chicago-area native said, but on this issue he said he was “deeply, deeply conflicted.” He said he’s seen other parts of the country, like Biloxi, Mississippi, suffer social problems from casinos but said he also felt that people should be “free to engage in their pleasure and how they spend their money.”

Cuthbert, a former principal for the Boston Consulting Group, a management consulting firm, repeatedly emphasized a free-market approach to issues throughout the afternoon, at one point saying he was in favor of privatization efforts with CPS Energy as a response to last year’s power grid issues.

Missing from the forum was the lone Democrat on the ticket, personal trainer Angi Aramburu. North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Cristina Aldrete said Aramburu withdrew from the forum because several family members had tested positive for COVID-19.

Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham writes about business and technology. Contact him at waylon@sareport.org.