Cordish Winning Over North Carolina Lawmakers With Campaign Contributions

The Cordish Companies based in Baltimore could stand to be the biggest winner if legislation introduced in North Carolina seeking to authorize three commercial casino resorts becomes law.

North Carolina casino gambling Cordish Phil Berger
North Carolina Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (at podium) and state Rep. Jason Saine (far left) are among the state lawmakers in North Carolina who have received campaign contributions from a casino company based in Maryland. Berger and Saine are supportive of more gaming in the Tar Heel State. (Image: AP)

North Carolina State Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) is working on a draft bill that would allow one casino resort each in the counties of Rockingham, Anson, and Nash. Dubbed the Rural Tourism Incentive Program, the statute would require the state to seek a single casino operator to construct and operate the three casinos through a competitive bidding process.

At this juncture, it appears that Cordish might be the front-runner for the commercial casino monopoly rights in the Tar Heel State.

Cordish has already reached a handshake agreement with a family who owns a 193-acre farm in Rockingham. Cordish wants to acquire the vacant land but first must have the property rezoned for commercial use.

Berger believes North Carolina should allow a few commercial casinos in the northern part of the state or along the I-95 corridor in order to keep casino dollars from flowing north into Virginia where casinos are opening.

Campaign Contributions

The Carolina Public Press reported this week that several state leaders have received financial contributions from Cordish in recent years. The independent, nonprofit news organization discovered that at least eight state lawmakers, all Republicans, have received donations from Cordish during a period ranging from November 2022 through March.

Berger received $5,600 from Joseph Weinberg, who is the CEO of Cordish’s gaming division. Weinberg also gave that amount to state Sen. Lisa Barnes (R-Nash), Rep. John Bell (R-Wayne), and Rep. Jason Saine (R-Lincoln).

Zed Smith, Cordish’s chief operating officer, gave $2,500 to state Sen. David Craven (R-Anson), Rep. Larry Strickland (R-Johnston), and Rep. Kyle Hall (R-Forsyth).

Rhonda Smith, the wife of Zed Smith, gave $2,500 to state Sen. Todd Johnson (R-Union). The lone donation to a Democrat came on the federal level, with Cordish Principal Jon Cordish giving $2,500 to US Rep. Kathy Manning (D-NC).

The contributions are legal and violate no ethics laws, but some say they still raise concerns.

“It could be the tip of the iceberg of the money that is falling into political campaigns and dark money operations that will be or have been funding General Assembly candidates and politicians,” said Bob Hall, the former director of Democracy NC, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to strengthening democracy.

Fourth Tribal Casino

Included in Berger’s draft bill is a provision that would protect the eastern portion of the state for a possible tribal casino owned by the Lumbee Tribe should it one day receive federal recognition. The Lumbee tribe is based in Pembroke.

North Carolina is currently home to three tribal casinos with slot machines, table games, and sports betting. Two are owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) — Harrah’s Cherokee and Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River. The third, Catawba Two Kings Casino, is owned by the Catawba Indian Nation.

Caesars Entertainment operates the Harrah’s properties on behalf of the EBCI. Nork York-based Delaware North operates Two Kings.

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