BIDDEFORD — Alan Casavant, a candidate for mayor, was campaigning door to door Tuesday when he met Penny Ackerson, who runs a day care at home.

“The racino – are you for it or against it?” she asked him.

She was speaking about the proposed Biddeford Downs, a harness racing and slot machine complex that developers promise to build if the state’s voters pass Question 2 next Tuesday.

This one issue has become the focal point for all political discourse in this city of 22,000 people. 

It’s the big issue that separates Casavant from his opponent, Mayor Joanne Twomey. (She has acknowledged being a “cheerleader” for the project, while Casavant says he’ll demand the best deal from developers.)

It’s also the most divisive issue among the eight candidates running for two at-large City Council seats and the 12 candidates running for the four contested seats on the City Council.

“The political scene is dominated by the racino,” said Grady Sexton, owner of Grady’s Radio & Satellite TV in downtown Biddeford. His son, William Sexton, and his son’s wife, Suzanne Sexton, are both running for City Council seats as supporters of the project.

Twomey said she’s so busy defending herself against political attacks from racino opponents that she’s struggling to focus on other parts of her job.

“It’s becoming overwhelming and interfering with the job I take seriously,” she said. “It’s almost to the point where I can’t breathe.”

How volatile is this issue? Consider that Roger over at Roger’s Barbershop on Main Street refused to tell a reporter his last name, such was his anxiety about offending any of his customers.

“I am indifferent. I have no position,” he pronounced.

Roch Angers, a pro-racino candidate who is running for an at-large seat, said he wants to talk about other topics, such as the city’s recycling program or the trash incinerator in downtown Biddeford. But, he said, voters want to talk only about the racino.

“I am appalled that this has become the issue,” he said.

Ironically, he said, the issue won’t ever appear on the city ballot.

Biddeford residents had their chance to weigh in last year when 59 percent of voters approved a ballot measure to allow the city to host a racino on 85 acres of city-owned land west of the Maine Turnpike.

The project’s critics discount that vote because they say that voters were led to believe that a “yes” vote would allow negotiations to begin, not that it was the final say.

When the initial bill came before the Legislature last winter, Casavant, a Democrat in the House of Representatives, voted with the majority to defeat the bill. Because the bill failed, it was automatically sent to state voters as a referendum question.

The developers, Ocean Properties and Scarborough Downs, did not provide adequate information about their project, Casavant said, explaining his vote. Moreover, there has never been an economic study on the racino’s impact on the city.

The way many people in Biddeford reacted to his vote surprised him, though.

Politics in Biddeford has always been volatile, Casavant said, but never so emotional.

“It’s a different landscape politically than it used to be,” he said. “It’s no longer tolerated if you disagree with someone on principle. Now it defines your whole character. There are some people who won’t talk to me. They shut me out completely.”

If Question 2 passes, Casavant said, he would be in a better position to negotiate with the racino developers as mayor because he’s not their “cheerleader,” as Twomey has been.

Twomey, who has been mayor for four years, lobbied hard to put the project on the city ballot last year and has continued to champion it as part of the Yes on 2 state campaign.

For her, she said, the issue is about one thing – bringing jobs to city residents who are out of work.
When Casavant voted in the Legislature against the racino bill, he was rejecting Biddeford’s democratic will, Twomey said.

“For him to turn his back on the people’s voice and then come out like he’s the savior – that he’s going to make the best deal – you’ve got to be kidding me.”

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: [email protected]