By Scott Long
In politics, if you want a friend, get a dog.
If you want a bill passed, get a lobbyist.
And if you want a lobbyist fully immersed in the complicated reality of Florida gaming law, get Marc Dunbar.
For 12 years, Dunbar, 38, a shareholder at the Tallahassee law firm of Pennington, Moore, Wilkinson, Bell & Dunbar, has lobbied successfully on behalf of Gulfstream Park and quarterhorse racing interests. And he’s expanded his profile by teaching gaming law at Florida State University and launching FloridaGamingWatch.com, a Web site that chronicles Florida gaming news.
“There isn’t a single other industry that I can think of that billions of dollars in profit or loss hang on a regulatory interpretation or a law that’s changed,” said Dunbar, who found his way to where he is today through a series of serendipitous events.
After law school, he sought to get out of the shadow of his successful father, Pete Dunbar, and blaze his own path. He found himself studying gaming issues from cruises-to-nowhere to sweepstakes on behalf of clients, every one of them connecting to the previous one.
“It was all of these weird little crossroads that, even though I didn’t think that was where I’d be, (gaming law) always crossed my path,” Dunbar said.
But the path was cemented when Doug Donn became chairman of Gulfstream Park and set out to bolster the track’s lobbying.
“What he wanted to do was change the paradigm for parimutuel lobbying,” Dunbar said. “He wanted a young lawyer bomb-thrower.”
That bomb-thrower? Marc Dunbar, who just happened to be the son of Donn’s fraternity brother, Pete Dunbar, and came highly recommended by former Florida Rep. John Culbreath.
At the time, Gulfstream Park had the fewest racing dates of horse racing tracks, no year-round simulcast offerings or a card room.
“I very quickly realized that it wasn’t going to be through my charm to get Gulfstream these privileges. So what I did was just immerse myself in the law,” Dunbar said. “I started to find things that didn’t make a lot of sense, and I recommended ways to challenge the status quo. And through legislation and litigation, was able to claw out the privileges that Gulfstream was seeking. It was through constant warfare.”
Dunbar’s approach was not without peril, nor warning. Before taking on the assignment, he sought the advice of his father and his father’s contemporaries, who agreed that challenging the longtime status quo would result in threats from competitors. Dunbar has survived three investigations and became the so-called “pariah” of the industry when he testified against video lottery terminals because he thought the state’s regulatory apparatus needed to be fixed first.
Dunbar also quickly wondered why the parimutuel industry didn’t work together more often.
“This doesn’t make any sense. Why don’t we all just get the same privileges and then we won’t have the lottery and the tribes picking our pockets?” Dunbar said he wondered as he began his work. “But the impediment is there are a handful of parimutuel owners who say ‘I’m going to be the big dog.’ And it’s gradually destroying the industry.”
Contributing to the problem is term limits, which has ushered in a new wave of legislators not accustomed to the old-school backroom deals — and who have no tolerance for it, Dunbar said.
“They don’t care about that old way of doing things.”
To that end, Dunbar has been pushing what he calls a parity agenda — issues that level the playing field for all parimutuels and advance common goals.
“What we’re fighting for benefits everyone,” he said of issues such as wide-area progressive jackpots for slot machines. “I’m optimistic that we’ll start to see everyone on the same page.”
Dunbar may have rocked the boat a little more with a new initiative — FloridaGamingWatch.com — just before this year’s session. The brainchild of public-relations executive Allison North Jones and former associate Dan Russell, the Web site is a clearinghouse of sorts for Florida gaming news. During the session, it used Twitter to “tweet” legislation updates, keeping people across the country up to date on proposals in near real-time.
“If all of these operators know what the laws are, they can make their own decisions, and there is a lot of filtering that goes on among these parimutuel advocacies,” said Dunbar, who also said legislators and the media followed the tweets. “It shined a big giant light on what was going on, and I think that kept some of the cockroaches at bay.”
Florida has grown into a major player in the nation’s gaming industry, but it has struggled to keep up with its growth.
“We’re as backwoods of a gaming jurisdiction as you can find,” Dunbar said. “It’s because Florida has expanded gaming by loophole, litigation, caveat over here. No one has sat back and said, ‘OK, boys and girls, we’re now the fifth- or sixth-largest gaming state in the country, what should our regulation look like?’ ”
Dunbar points out that five state agencies play a role in gaming issues, and the vast majority of slot machines in the state — so-called “gray market” machines — are regulated not by the state, but by cities or counties.
“It’s an absolute joke,” he said.
Fixing the regulatory apparatus is paramount to Dunbar, who hopes the state eventually hires outside experts knowledgeable in casino gaming to help it navigate through its growing status among the country’s gaming elite.
That effort was dealt a blow when longtime Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering director David Roberts resigned in July. With Gov. Charlie Crist leaving office, it’s unlikely a permanent successor will be named until the next governor takes office.
“It’s a big loss, and you’re not going to be able to replace him in the next 18 months, because it’s a lame-duck job,” said Dunbar, who nonetheless is confident progress is being made. “I’m very optimistic that the gears are going in the right direction.”
And that’s important, Dunbar said, as the parimutuel industry looks for ways to survive, and thrive, in an ever-competitive marketplace.
Dunbar expects we’ll see more players consolidating efforts. Tampa Greyhound Track no longer offers live racing, farming it out to Derby Lane, essentially making it a stand-alone poker room and off-track-betting facility. Jacksonville Greyhound Racing does the same thing, holding its races at Orange Park Kennel Club while maintaining a poker room at St. Johns Greyhound Park, and it’s planning a second stand-alone poker room. Palm Beach Kennel Club sought legislative relief last session to open a second poker room in Palm Beach County.
“It’s a legitimate policy debate on why what’s happening successfully in the Jacksonville and Tampa markets shouldn’t happen all over the state,” Dunbar said. “That’s the next big debate that will be coming in the Legislature in the next two to three years.”
More immediate is the re-emergence of quarterhorse racing, of which Dunbar is squarely in the middle of lobbying efforts. Dunbar says the 10 or so applications that have been filed for new tracks have resulted in just three permits — in Gretna, Jasper and Marion County — to join Hialeah Park, which will be reborn as a quarterhorse track.
“There’s an incredible amount of interest in resurrecting the industry, and the people involved in those three tracks are horsemen and very much into running the racing. The poker makes it go,” said Dunbar, who expects the state will see its first race in 2010 and the state’s tracks forming a circuit, with horses breaking their maidens in Gretna and Jasper before moving on to Marion County and finally to Hialeah, where slot machines will mean the biggest purses.
“Florida will quickly become a force in quarterhorse racing across the country,” he said.
When he’s not pressing his agenda in the halls of government, Dunbar is pressing it in the halls of higher education. For three years, he’s taught gaming law at his alma mater, FSU, a suggestion that came from his father and validated by Dunbar’s struggles in dealing with government officials.
“I was frustrated by trying to have conversations with the (Division of Pari-mutuel Wagering) lawyers, and not have them understand what I was talking about,” Dunbar said.
He had 46 students the first year, and some of them have moved on to prominent roles in the state’s gaming industry. Legislative staff and state regulators have audited the class, and legislators have visited the classroom from time to time, too.
“That, I think, is an indication that there’s a need for this kind of education,” he said.
So what’s the future hold for Florida gaming?
Dunbar reminds us again of the infighting among parimutuel interests.
“In my last 12 years of experience, we start out the session the same way. If we can get on the same page, and are not proposing a significant expansion, the Legislature is very receptive,” he said. “I think the vast majority of the industry wants a level playing field, wants to stop the fighting. And it’s a question of whether those players step up and take control of the industry, or they stay on the sidelines and let it be driven by others who have a more parochial interest to their advocacy. And that’s the $64,000 question.”