Westbury Mayor Peter Cavallaro, whose winter battles are usually limited to clearing snow from village streets, stands at ground zero in the fight to keep a casino from going in across the street from several thousand village homes.
Cavallaro has become the de facto leader in the fight to stop Nassau Off Track Betting Corp. from building a gambling emporium with 1,000 video lottery terminals at the former Fortunoff mall, just beyond the village border.
"It's an existential threat to our village and the quality of life our residents have enjoyed," said Cavallaro, a Republican and lifelong village resident. "It's a big unexpected monkey wrench that has been sprung on us."
Cavallaro, 53, mayor for six years and a trustee for a decade more, said he first learned of the casino plans early last month, before the site became public, from a local resident in real estate. He said he then met with OTB officials, who confirmed their intentions.
Cavallaro has sent a letter to OTB expressing concerns about increases in crime and traffic he says could affect the village's 15,500 residents. Casinos "will not bring good things, only bad things to communities that host them," he said.
Backers downplay potential problems, saying the bulk of patrons will be in the 50-64 age group and that traffic will be less than when Fortunoff was open. They also say the complex will provide jobs and revenue needed to ease Nassau's budget deficits.
Cavallaro, once North Hempstead GOP leader, says he sees the casino strictly as a governmental issue, not a political question. While the village is home to Nassau Republican headquarters, Cavallaro, an attorney with a corporate practice, said he has made no attempt to approach GOP chairman Joseph Mondello about the issue.
However, Cavallaro has enlisted Republican County Executive Edward Mangano and Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray to oppose the plan, though they say they have no power to control it. Democratic North Hempstead Supervisor Judi Bosworth also opposes the plan. And Democrats in the Nassau County Legislature have called on majority Republicans to replace the three-member OTB board with opponents of the Fortunoff site.
Paul Sabatino, former Suffolk legislative counsel, speculated that officials such as Mangano and Murray fear the potential for the same groundswell that killed school speed cameras last year. "The OTB casino could be facing the same tsunami," Sabatino said.
Sabatino said this fight is more uphill. He noted that state law exempts the casino from local zoning, and that the anti-casino campaign -- unlike the battle against the countywide school cameras plan -- may have limited geographic appeal. Also, Nassau officials are desperate for the projected $20 million in annual casino revenue, Sabatino said.
Desmond Ryan, a veteran business lobbyist, said Mangano, who originally lobbied for the casino and Murray may publicly oppose the site, but will not try to stop it.
"It's all a Kabuki dance," Ryan said. "It's like the movie 'Casablanca' -- they're shocked gambling is going on but, 'Oh, here's your winnings.' "
GOP Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) said she is not ready to take a position on the casino site, but praised OTB for finally sending out mailings and scheduling meetings about the issue.
Gonsalves said ousting the OTB board is no solution because any other sites could face similar concerns. "In my experience, once people become informed, their fears are allayed and their anger dissipates," she said.
Jay Jacobs, Nassau Democratic chairman, said the underlying problem is that Republicans are relying on costly gimmicks like casinos to bring in revenue.
"They are looking to grab money without taxpayers noticing," he said.