Lesniak Is Leaving, But Not Before Talking With Us About His Gaming Legacy

Dessert table at retirement party
Christie v. NCAA is all over the news as a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court that has the potential to give all states the option to authorize and regulate sports betting. However, the name that really belongs on the lawsuit is Lesniak.

It was New Jersey State Senator Raymond Lesniak who spearheaded this challenge of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) in 2010. He put his name – when Gov. Chris Christie wouldn’t – on the original lawsuit that set in motion the events that led to this case reaching the nation’s highest court.

Before he retires after 40 years serving in the New Jersey state legislature, PlayNJ spoke to Lesniak about the gaming legacy he is leaving behind. One that will be felt in Atlantic City and New Jersey as a whole for decades to come.

Lesniak has long been the best interview nationally among state legislators – happy to talk about gaming because he made the issue a priority, always ready with a clever quote and a jab at Christie, his usual nemesis and occasional ally.

But while some legislators talk a good talk, Lesniak had the clout, experience, and persistence to be effective. This was never more apparent than after Christie conditionally vetoed his Internet gaming bill. He he had it back on the governor’s desk with the changes that would get it signed before the month was up.

When he said something would happen, he was usually overly optimistic on the timing, but he’d eventually prove to be right.

Early challenge of PASPA

Lesniak’s original lawsuit against PASPA focused mainly on its violation of the 10th Amendment by denying states a power not prohibited to them by the U.S. Constitution.

Ironically, given his prominence in the current suit, this challenge was derailed by Christie – who was trying to woo the NFL to bring a Super Bowl to New Jersey – declining to put his name on it.

The suit was dismissed in district court because the plaintiffs lacked standing. A 10th Amendment claim could only be made by a state.

Lesniak later got a sports betting referendum on an election ballot in 2011 showing that New Jersey voters supported the activity by a two-to-one margin. Then he passed a bill legalizing sports betting in the state. After that, Christie got on board.

The major U.S. pro sports leagues and NCAA filed suit against New Jersey and Christie for the bill that Lesniak got him to sign, setting up Christie v. NCAA I.

“It does bother me that Christie’s name is up there first,” Lesniak said. “I’d like to get the recognition. I fought long and hard, and did a lot of free legal work on it. But the most important thing is it benefits the state of New Jersey.”

“It’s not whose name is on it, it’s who supported it all the way,” Lesniak added. “I filed the first suit personally in state court. Christie’s name was put on it because he signed my legislation. And, actually, [New Jersey governor-elect] Phil Murphy’s name will be on it when the title changes.”

Internet gaming already impacting New Jersey

While his sports betting efforts were hitting roadblocks, Lesniak had more success with internet gambling. He brought both online poker and casino games to New Jersey through Atlantic City.

These efforts also required Lesniak’s persistence. He first got his internet gambling bill passed through the Senate late in 2010. Early in 2011, the bill passed through the Assembly only for Christie to veto, a decision Lesniak blamed on opposition from Caesars Entertainment, which owned four Atlantic City casinos but was based out of Nevada.

“The hardest part was getting the New Jersey casinos on board,” Lesniak said. “They fought me every step of the way. They were opposed because they were sold a bill of goods by Harry Reid and [Chuck] Grassley in the Senate that they were going to get national internet gaming passed, which was never going to happen. I overcame that opposition in New Jersey, and now they’re the ones benefiting from it.”

It took another two years of work before Lesniak put internet gambling back on the governor’s desk. This time Christie’s conditional veto only asked for minor changes. Lesniak got the legislature to approve those changes within three weeks to finally get Christie’s signature.

Online gaming has accounted for $700 million in revenue since launching in 2013.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that without internet gaming, we would have had one or two more casinos close, and that would have been a terrible tragedy,” Lesniak said.

Lesniak bill sparks new PASPA suit

After Christie v. NCAA I lost at the district and appellate levels, then declined to be heard by the Supreme Court, it was Lesniak who identified a clever way to reignite the challenge.

He noted in the appellate court’s ruling that federal law only prohibits state-regulated sports betting. So Lesniak introduced a bill that would repeal the state laws barring sports betting to potentially allow the state’s casinos and race tracks to open sports books without state regulation. He did this knowing that what it really would do is lead to another opportunity in court.

Christie actually vetoed the bill that led to the current lawsuit bearing his name. However, he signed an updated version four months later. The NCAA and sports leagues filed suit again leading to the ongoing legal challenge, which New Jersey once more lost in district and appellate courts.

Lesniak attested that the only time he wavered in his belief that he could bring sports betting to New Jersey was this last denial by the court of appeals in 2016. They were facing another application to the U.S. Supreme Court, which had already declined to hear the issue three years earlier. The group also takes less than 2 percent of the cases that apply. Once the application was granted, his pessimism flipped to strong optimism.

“I won’t be able to get it done before I leave office, but still my legacy will be sports betting,” Lesniak said. “Sports betting will save 10s of thousands of jobs and two industries. I liken sports betting reviving the casino and horse-racing industries to snow boarding reviving the skiing industry.”

The future of sports betting

There’s no guarantee that the Supreme Court will rule in favor of New Jersey. Optimism is running high though. Everyone seems to realize that it is unfair for Nevada to hold a monopoly on regulated online gambling in the U.S., forcing the majority of the country to place bets on offshore sites.

The MLB and NBA have lessened their opposition to the expansion of regulated sports betting. Meanwhile the NFL approved putting a team in Las Vegas and played games in London, where people in attendance can place wagers from inside the stadium.

Pennsylvania included sports betting in the gambling expansion package signed by the governor in 2017, anticipating the Supreme Court decision. Michigan also added sports betting to a bill on the Senate floor.

“It’s going to be great for Atlantic City because younger people aren’t interested in casino gambling or horse racing,” Lesniak said. “Gamblers only stay a day, but sports bettors stay long weekends. There’s 15,000 people out of work in Atlantic City. This is going to jump start that city and be a great benefit for the state. It will be worth the battle, that’s for sure.”

Sports betting could “revive” Atlantic City

As much as internet gaming has saved Atlantic City from further casino closures, Lesniak expects sports betting to revive the resort city.

“Without a doubt, Revel will reopen,” Lesniak said. “It’s built for sports betting, not for casino gambling. It belongs more on South Beach. It will reopen in a big way, and maybe another casino as well. They’ll all be thriving.”

He has a commitment with Monmouth Racetrack to put in the first legal sports bet in New Jersey. Though he’s second-guessing what that wager will be.

“Last year, I said I’d put the bet on the Giants to win the Super Bowl, but I may have to rethink that this time around,” Lesniak said.

Lesniak ended tenure with online casino server bill

Lesniak, 71, announced that this would be his last term in office even before his unsuccessful bid for governor last year (he came in fourth in the Democratic primary).

His 40-year stint in the New Jersey legislature is second-longest in state history. He took office on Jan. 10, 1978, serving two years in the Assembly before joining the Senate. He leaves office on Jan. 9.

Lesniak has always envisioned online gambling in New Jersey as more than its current inner-state model, or even the interstate network expected to begin this year with Nevada and Delaware. He sees New Jersey as an international hub of internet gaming. He hoped to facilitate that future as his final accomplishment before leaving office.

In early December, Lesniak introduced a bill removing the requirement for servers to be located in Atlantic City to pave the way for partnerships with international jurisdictions.

Lesniak said he quickly realized that it was too early for the bill because the differing tax rates between New Jersey and these other jurisdictions are a roadblock. There’s no reason to take this step if an agreement wasn’t going to be reached.

“I thought we were close, but they have sufficient enough liquidity that adding the U.S. isn’t such a big attraction,” Lesniak said. “I’ll stay on top of it and, whenever the opportunity arises for us to expand into the worldwide market, I’ll be involved for sure. I think, ultimately, there will be international internet gaming coming out of New Jersey.”

What’s next for Lesniak?

Lesniak asserted that, just because he is retired, not to expect him to disappear from the public eye. He has plans to start an institute for public advocacy at a university in New Jersey, and he still expects to be influential in public policy issues regarding gambling.

“I’ve been in the legislature for 40 years,” Lesniak said. “I have plenty of friends left to carry the baton. But I intend to stay in the middle of it. I’m not going away to Tahiti. I can’t walk away from what has been my passion these last 40 years.”

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Matthew Kredell


Matthew began writing about legislative efforts to regulate online poker in 2007 after UIGEA interfered with his hobby of playing small-stakes online poker while working as a sportswriter at the Los Angeles Daily News. Covering the topic for Bluff Magazine, PokerNews and now Online Poker Report, he has interviewed four U.S. Congressmen and 20+ state legislators. His poker writing has been cited by The Atlantic, Politico.com and CNN.com. A freelance writer based in Los Angeles, Matt has written on a variety of topics for Playboy Magazine, Men’s Journal, Los Angeles magazine, LA Weekly and ESPN.com.