Epilogue: Florida Chamber prevails in a ‘Clash of the Titans’ by killing AIF-backed “Destination Resorts’ legislation

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The real story-behind-the-story in the stunningly quick and final death of the ‘Destinations Resorts’ issue in the 2012 legislative session is how Associated Industries of Florida lost its priority issue against the more effective, understated “Bad Bet for Florida” campaign conceived and executed by the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Even before the session began, AIF touted fronting of the pro-casino expansion side by trumpeting a press release that vowed: “AIF Puts Lobbying Muscle Behind Destination Resorts Legislation.”

In the end, even with the steroid support of gambling industry millions, the AIF “muscle” flexed and was broken.

The two rival statewide groups representing business were at polar opposite sides on this issue. But the neon promises touted by AIF were never really backed up — including the promise of 100,000 new jobs.

But the Florida Chamber relentlessly pressed on a more credible message that the net impact of mega casinos would be devastating job losses, closed businesses and a permanent tarnish on Florida’s family-friendly brand.

Both groups spent months putting together campaigns to push “for” (AIF) and “against” (Chamber) the expansion of gambling, for which monster Malaysian casino company Genting and others invested millions.

Even against the backdrop of a depressed economy, proponents led by AIF could not overcome the more organized and focused attack led by the Florida Chamber and a friendly but unrelated complementing effort by the “No Casinos” group headed by John Sowinski.

The army of lobbyists making their annual salary goals on this one issue for the pro-casino forces were lapped by the more nimble coalition organized and led by the Florida Chamber, with Chamber President Mark Wilson tasking a top vice president, Brad Swanson, to field general the campaign – including the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, the Florida Retail Federation, an array of key opinion leaders and local market chambers and business groups.

The Florida Chamber’s tagline that “What Happens in Vegas Should Stay in Vegas” resonated more deeply and effectively than the AIF advertising blitz campaign that mistakenly relied on a politically-inclined and marginally-liked character actor, Ben Stein, whose greater claim to fame remains uttering “Bueller, Bueller, Bueller” in the classic movie from the 80s’ “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

By contrast, The Florida Chamber’s “Bad Bet” campaign relied heavily on behind-the-scenes strategizing that was smarter and more focused. That’s typified by a far lower-budget campaign that was aided by targeting its shots, rather than taking a scattergun approach.

Against the lobbying army and a consortium of PR firms working the issue for the casino giants, the Chamber relied on Ron Sachs Communications and Adam Goodman’s Victory Group to more than overcome the numbers game that favored the other side. Generating near-unanimous newspaper editorial support, popping daily hits to undermine the pro-casino side, driving traffic to the “Bad Bet” website and featuring smart, sassy kids in their ads and TV spots, the Chamber-led ‘kill’ campaign was the silver bullet that hit the bulls-eye.

The Florida Chamber’s modern track record of winning its priority agenda issues sets a statewide standard: when they identify a priority to pass, it usually happens. When they commit to kill something (can you say “Hometown Democracy”?), they kill it for good.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.