Senate District 27, vacated by Democrat Eddie Lucio Jr. (retiring), stands to be the only state Senate battleground in the November election. It’s one that will shape legal gambling and sports betting legislation in the upcoming session.
Sports betting is prohibited in Texas despite it being a sports-crazed state. Hopes are high that that could change in 2023.
Morgan LaMantia, a lawyer whose family owns a major beer distribution company in South Texas, steamrolled her way to the Democratic nomination by outspending every other Democratic candidate.
LaMantia’s campaign has received major contributions from the Las Vegas-based Sands PAC. Sands has invested millions of dollars campaigning for legal gambling in Texas since the last legislative session.
Because of the hefty endorsement from Sands, PlayTexas reached out to the LaMantia campaign for an interview on legal gambling in The Lone Star State. They responded with “no comment,” citing the LaMantia family’s conflicts of interest in the gambling industry.
The LaMantia family conflict of interest
Joe LaMantia Jr., Morgan LaMantia’s grandfather, bought his first Anheuser-Busch distribution center in McAllen, Texas, in 1977. Thereafter, he expanded his distribution range across the Rio Grande Valley and into New Mexico to become the leading beer distributor in South Texas. The family company that started with 20 employees now employees over 1,100.
In 2004, two of LaMantia’s sons, Steve (Morgan Lamantia’s father) and Greg, created two offshoot LLCs with interests in the horse racing industry.
- Valle de Los Tesoros LLC
- LRP Group, Ltd
In 2007, Valle de Los Tesoros LLC was granted the license to open Valle de Los Tesoros racetrack in McAllen. The track would be managed by Retama Park. LRP Group received a similar license for Laredo Downs in nearby Laredo.
Then, during the 2008 legislative session, the LaMantia family lobbied for an amendment to a horse racing bill that would increase the number of race tracks a person could own from two to three. Lucio Jr., whose Senate seat Morgan aims to fill, offered the amendment up in the Texas Senate, and it passed without much fanfare.
This amendment coincided with Gov. Rick Perry’s attempts to allow slot machines at racetracks. His efforts failed, but the timing of the amended legislation and the governor’s plans to put slots in racetracks signaled the LaMantias’ interests in both horse racing and casino gaming.
Had it all worked out, the LaMantias might have opened at least two racetracks with attendant game rooms, but legal gaming didn’t gain traction back in 2008.
Furthermore, neither of the LaMantias’ proposed racetracks were ever built.
HISA battle has stymied horse racing in Texas
Jumping forward to 2022, both LaMantia LLCs – still invested in the horse racing industry and still without a developed racetrack – filed suit against Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority. HISA is the federal horse-racing authority that the Texas Racing Commission (TRC) refuses to recognize.
It has resulted in the elimination of interstate simulcasting at Texas racetracks, with disastrous effects. Texas tracks lost over 80% of their handle over the previous year due to the conflict.
Both Valle de Los Tesoros and LRP Group claim their business endeavors have also been “stymied due to HISA’s implementation and the regulatory chaos and confusion that has resulted.” This despite the fact that the TRC lists both tracks as “inactive” and “up for review” in 2023.
LaMantia’s involvement in the HISA lawsuit could signal that both LLCs, in the process of building horse tracks and applying for licenses with the TRC, are interested in offering simulcast betting at the facilities in the interim.
The TRC explained to PlayTexas that an entity could offer simulcast betting even if they haven’t built their racetrack as long as they’ve received a license and “pending live race dates” status from the commission. At the moment, neither racetrack has received the aforementioned status.
LaMantia bolstered by Sands, family contributions
The $30,000 donated from the Sands PAC makes LaMantia the fifth highest-earning Sands PAC donee in Texas. Moreover, three of the four donees earning more than her are the top lawmakers in the state: Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Speaker of the House Dade Phelan.
Like many candidates though, and despite the heavy Sands endorsement, LaMantia made no mention of legalizing gambling in her campaign platform. Indeed, declining an interview with PlayTexas over potential family conflicts of interest suggests she may not raise the issue unless she wins the election.
To help her reach the finish line, her family has provided an even bigger boost to her campaign than Sands. Over the course of the campaign, they’ve donated an estimated $3.3 million. When asked if the family was trying to buy the election, Lucio Jr. said contributions from family are typical in campaigns.
“We all get support from our families. It can be at different levels, monetarily, because of our different economic situations. Instead of a $500 check it can be a $5,000 check.”
While that’s true, her family, one of the richest in the Rio Grande Valley, is cutting $50,000 checks.
Loans Made To The LaMantia Campaign
And while these are technically loans from her family, that distinction may be more for show than anything else.
SD27 anchors the vital Rio Grande Valley
The family’s established interests in the horse racing and casino game industries may have triggered Sands to endorse Morgan LaMantia. More importantly though is the position SD27 holds in the Senate.
Lucio Jr., who represented the region for over 30 years, was known for being one of the most moderate Democrats in the Senate. He had the tenure and bipartisan record to move legislation through the staunchly conservative Senate. More importantly, he had the endorsement of conservatives like Patrick for being someone who would break with his party to pass legislation.
He also sat on the influential State Affairs Committee – the committee where all gambling and sports betting legislation is assigned. On that committee, he represented one of the only voices for legalized gaming.
UPDATE: With a close victory, LaMantia inherits a big seat just in time
With LaMantia’s victory, she inherits the seat of one of the most established lawmakers to support legal gaming. She also becomes the highest-ranking elected representative of the Rio Grande Valley, a key battleground for gaming legalization where Lucio Jr. was often one of the only Democratic voices.
Lucio Jr. has formally endorsed LaMantia, and his endorsement could go a long way, especially with Patrick’s re-election. It is Patrick’s role as leader of the Senate to assign committees, and Lucio’s influence could help LaMantia land influential committee membership.
Adding to LaMantia’s key position is the casino legislation filed by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth. His legislation, HJR 97, allows for up to seven licenses for resort casinos in five regions of the state–Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, McAllen and Corpus Chrisi. Under his resolution, racetracks with existing licenses would receive the priority to accept the casino license or hand it over to a third party.
The LaMantia family’s previous racetrack license for the uncompleted Valle de Los Tesoros track in McAllen could mean that the region’s casino license would go to Valle de Los Tesoros and the LaMantia family. The family’s other uncompleted track, Laredo Downs, sits just outside HJR 97’s included regions, but not by much.
If HJR 97 passes–a big if–the LaMantia family could become synonymous with legal gambling in the Rio Grande Valley.