Speaker of the House of Delegates, Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, stands in the chamber. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Speaker of the House of Delegates, Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, stands in the chamber. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Backers of a long-shot push to open a casino resort in Bristol are dropping major campaign cash on Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox, a longtime opponent of expanding gambling in Virginia.

Cox’s leadership PAC, Colonial Leadership Trust, has reported $200,000 in donations from the two men leading the project, their associates and family members. Nearly all of it came in a wave of eight donations Friday, according to campaign finance records compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project.

It’s a big number, easily surpassing donations to the committee from major corporate players like Dominion and Altria.

“It’s a substantially large donation to a leadership PAC,” said Bob Holsworth, a former VCU political science professor, though he questioned what impact it ultimately might have. “It’s hard to imagine that this in and of itself will change the dynamic. I think that it’s not going to be so easy to convince Kirk Cox to reverse his position on gambling.”

The casino group has pitched the project as a potential savior for a struggling city, arguing it will create as many as 5,000 good paying jobs and transform the local economy. They plan to locate it in a defunct mall they purchased in June.

But, casino gambling is illegal in Virginia, and past efforts to change that have not made it far. Meanwhile, substantial opposition on moral grounds is already beginning to bubble up in Bristol.

Cox in particular has been unequivocal in his opposition to expanded casino gambling in Virginia and voted against a measure this year that is allowing the operator of Colonial Downs to install slot machine-style games at off-track betting parlors around the state.

Cox’s staff said in an email his position has not changed, downplaying the significance of the donations.

“Speaker Cox has visited Southwest Virginia three times this year to raise money and support our candidates, including a trip last week for a fundraiser,” said spokesman Parker Slaybaugh. “He appreciates the broad support from people in Southwest Virginia who believe in the Republican majority and our efforts.

“The recent fundraiser was completely separate from the ongoing discussions surrounding casino gaming in Bristol. That concept will have to be evaluated on its merits by the General Assembly just like all legislative proposals, but the speaker has always opposed any expansion of gaming in the commonwealth.”

Developers want to convert the former Bristol Mall into a casino resort, but need the General Assembly’s approval. (Google Maps)

Cox’s PAC supports Republican House of Delegates campaigns around the state and pay caucus staff and consultants. It’s raised $1.4 million since 2017, according to VPAP.

The biggest chunk of donations came from the project’s leaders, Jim McGlothlin and Clyde Stacy, who the Bristol Herald Courier described as “coal barons and longtime Southwest Virginia business leaders.”

Including donations made by their immediate family members and businesses, they’ve donated more than $140,000 to Cox since announcing the project. Another $60,000 came from other executives involved in the project and their family members: Derek Fletcher, Justin Matney, and his father, John Matney.

The first donations to Cox’s PAC began to trickle in in late August, just before the project was announced, with a second, much larger round, coming last week. They are the only donations any have made so far this year.

A spokesman for the casino project, Rob Jones of the Alliance Group, said he could only speak for McGlothlin and Stacy’s donations, describing them as standard political giving.

“They have a history of giving over the years to both Democrats and Republicans, locally and statewide. The most recent contributions are part of that giving,” Jones said.

The casino group has also retained seven lobbyists to advocate on their behalf during the coming General Assembly session, according to VPAP.