Under the Dome: Kevin Berger on his tight race, and backlash to a proposed NC casino

Hello and welcome to your Under the Dome newsletter. Avi Bajpai here.

The backlash to a proposal championed by Senate leader Phil Berger last summer to open the door to four new casinos in the state didn’t just tank the bill when negotiations reached a turning point during the budget standoff in September.

Opposition to the prospect of new casinos being built in rural parts of the state, pitched by proponents as a source of much-needed revenue, didn’t go away last year. Instead, it appears to have grown over the last several months, resulting in a particularly close race among Republicans vying for seats on the Rockingham County Board of Commissioners in last month’s primary.

On Election Night, incumbent Commissioner Kevin Berger, whose father is the Senate leader, almost lost out on another term, trailing former Commissioner Craig Travis by just seven votes. Berger had previously voted with the other four board members in August to rezone nearly 200 acres of land that was expected to host one of the new casinos that state lawmakers were considering approving.

After provisional and absentee ballots were counted, Berger ultimately defeated Travis — by three votes, The Greensboro News & Record reported. A recount confirmed that Berger won the third open seat on the board that was up for grabs in the primary.

Berger says casino was a ‘missed opportunity’ for Rockingham

It’s been a month since the recount, and the legislative session will start next week. GOP leaders have indicated that casinos aren’t likely to be considered during this year’s short session.

But Kevin Berger still stands by the decision he and his fellow commissioners made last year in an attempt to revitalize the region.

In an emailed statement this week, he defended his vote to rezone 192 acres for a new casino. He said the proposal to attract large-scale commercial development to Rockingham and other rural counties was a “missed opportunity” to infuse millions of dollars in tax revenues into funding the needs of schools, addressing local crime rates, and creating jobs.

Berger said the proposed entertainment district would have brought restaurants, retail stores, a concert hall, at least one large hotel, and other development to the area, in addition to a casino that would have created at least 1,750 jobs with good pay. He said It was the “largest single economic development and employment project Rockingham County has ever entertained.”

“For several years, I have heard our residents ask for more places to eat, places to shop, things to do and a hotel on the western side of the county,” Kevin Berger told The News & Observer. “In the last 10 years, the county conducted multiple studies and efforts in an attempt to attract a hotel to the area. The Rural Tourism District initiative in the legislature was something that showed real promise for success in these efforts.”

Responding to concerns about the impact a casino could have on a quiet rural community, Berger said that gambling is already within reach for the residents of Rockingham County, whether people are organizing day trips to the Caesars casino in nearby Danville, Virginia, or are playing digital instants, offered by the lottery commission, online, or on their phones.

A contentious election, and potential legal action

Addressing the close election, Berger said he felt many voters were misled, and said that some candidates even “stooped to the level of accusing us of criminal activity in the form of accepting bribes.”

Asked what he was referring to, Berger said one of his opponents, Greg Ziglar, falsely accused him and other commissioners of taking bribes while at a campaign event at a church. He said an attorney had been engaged and was reviewing the material, and said that “justice will be pursued.”

Ziglar told The N&O that his concerns about the casino proposal and a lack of transparency by commissioners were “shared by the citizens of Rockingham County.” Ziglar came in fifth in last month’s GOP primary, trailing Travis and Berger by just 23 and 26 votes respectively.

“I’ve always thought the job of a commissioner is to represent the interests of the people who elected him,” Ziglar said in an emailed statement. “When those people make it clear that they want one thing and the people who are supposed to represent them do the exact opposite, I think it’s reasonable to wonder whose interests they are really serving.”

That’s all for today. Check your inbox Sunday for more #ncpol news.