For the last month, someone’s been running a social media campaign built to look like grassroots, community opposition to slot machines in Northern Virginia.
In almost $50,000 worth of Facebook ads, a group called Not in Nova has warned that “out-of-state Big Gambling special interests and their lobbyists” were sneaking a bill through the General Assembly that would make Northern Virginia more crowded, expensive and traffic-clogged. But none of the group’s public materials connect back to any identifiable citizen activists working against a proposal to allow Colonial Downs to operate hundreds of slots-like historical horse racing machines in Dumfries.
The secretive nature of the advocacy campaign and the fingerprints of the PR firms that seem to be carrying it out have fueled questions on social media and around the Capitol about who’s actually behind it.
MGM Resorts, the big, out-of-state gambling interest with a casino on the other side of the Potomac River, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on whether it had any role in the campaign. The MGM National Harbor casino resort stands to lose a slice of its revenue if Northern Virginia residents have other gambling options closer to home. MGM’s Virginia-based lobbyist also did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Though no full-blown casinos are being considered for Northern Virginia, the casino legalization bill the General Assembly just passed included the carveout for Colonial Downs that Not in Nova was trying to stop. If Gov. Ralph Northam signs the bill, the company, which owns the New Kent County horse racing track and its affiliated Rosie’s gambling facilities, would win the right to install up to 1,650 historical horse racing machines in Dumfries to protect itself from casinos that could be built in other parts of the state.
The official paper trail for Not in Nova is sparse.
On March 6, the group filed a lobbying disclosure with the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council. That form lists Jennifer Resnick, an employee of Democratic consulting firm Blue Wave Politics, as the principal officer for Not in Nova. Reached by phone Tuesday at the number listed on the lobbying form, Resnick said the “appropriate person” would respond to the inquiry. No response was received by Tuesday evening.
Not in Nova’s designated lobbyist is Don Mark, a Richmond-based consultant who previously worked as an aide to former Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones. Mark declined to comment.
The public-facing portions of the Not in Nova website don’t include the names of anyone involved in the effort. But code accessible on the site – which operates on a WordPress publishing platform – lists the names of three authorized users. All three names match the names of employees of the communications firm Precision Strategies, which provides “strategic communication services to Fortune 500 companies, non-profits, advocacy organizations, and political campaigns,” according to its company website. The Precision Strategies employees whose names match the names in the website code did not respond to multiple emails seeking comment.
The advocacy campaign also involved a full-page newspaper ad that ran in the March 4 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
“Grassroots momentum to stop a Northern Virginia casino is growing,” the ad declared. Allowing casino-style gambling in Northern Virginia, it said, would “cost lawmakers who fail to stand up right now.”
In one social media post directed at the governor, Not in Nova posted a photo of a stack of boxes that apparently contained 2,000 petition signatures or messages from Virginia residents. In a subsequent post, the group seemed to anticipate that the authenticity of its efforts would be questioned.
“Lobbyists for Big Gaming are trying to silence the concerns of Virginians by saying thousands of petitions and emails opposing the casino are fake,” the post said. “Call your lawmakers TODAY & tell them just how real your concerns are!”