David Satz arrived in Louisiana in 1993 with an assignment he believed would last about six weeks — building the case for his client, Harrah's Entertainment, to open the state's only land-based casino in downtown New Orleans.
Six weeks somehow turned into about 10 years of commuting to and from the Gulf Coast. And sometime around the fifth year, the New Jersey attorney found himself hunting and eating alligator for the first time in his life, he said, all part of a district-by-district, parish-by-parish lobbying tour with state lawmakers and stakeholders.
“You had to persuade a Legislature and a governor to restructure the whole model they had for gambling,” said Satz, whose client was part of the group that opened the casino in 1999. “So I think we moved the needle significantly, with lots of input from the business community and others down there, to a model that really works.”
The quest to open the New Orleans casino was as long and complex as it was formative for Satz, who started the assignment as a partner with Saiber LLC, then in Newark. Today he is the top lobbyist for Caesars Entertainment, the Las Vegas-based gaming giant that owns four of Atlantic City's 12 casinos, plus four dozen others worldwide.
That's helped make Satz one of the loudest voices in New Jersey's gaming industry in recent years — especially under Gov. Chris Christie, who tapped Satz to be a member of his transition team in 2009 — and he has been in the middle of efforts like a sweeping overhaul of casino regulations in 2011.
Caesars, which owns the popular World Series of Poker brand, is among the operators looking to introduce Internet gaming after its recent legalization in New Jersey, and will continue to add to the city's nongaming amenities — specifically through a new $140 million conference center at Harrah's.
But gaming remains the core focus for the company, and a New Jersey legislator closely tied to gaming issues said Satz has a “huge voice” in the industry, though not one that's always aligned with Atlantic City.
“If Nevada's interests are contrary to New Jersey's interests, they take Nevada's side,” said state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), who has criticized Caesars' earlier positions about Internet gaming and sports betting. “So we have very serious policy disagreements. … But they've come around on both, so I must give them credit for that. He's a very tough competitor, but that's OK, because so am I.”
That's the sort of thing colleagues saw in the 1980s, while Satz was starting down the path to becoming a casino executive. He began his career as a private-practice attorney for what was then known as Saiber, Schlesinger, Satz & Goldstein, co-founded by his father — a federal prosecutor and prominent gaming attorney.
“He's very willing to voice his opinion and participate in a dialogue,” said William Maderer, now Saiber's managing director. “Nothing in life is black and white; there are always a lot of shades of gray.”
When Harrah's asked him to join full time in 2002, Satz said he balked at the thought of a job that involved so much travel, but was sold when the Memphis, Tenn.-based company allowed him to keep his home in New Jersey.
“It was the transformation of David Satz, as a lawyer, to David Satz, the government and political operative,” Satz quipped, noting that he “learned a lot of politics” during his time in the Gulf. When he first got to Louisiana, “there was nothing … except the idea of a land-based casino in the center of New Orleans,” he said, and the backers of Harrah's plan were effectively limited to one lawmaker from each chamber.
The North Caldwell resident now oversees government relations for properties in 12 states and seven countries, following Harrah's acquisition of Caesars in 2005 and its subsequent rebranding as the latter. That means Satz is on a plane every week, a dizzying routine he says is now second nature.
Perhaps equally dizzying is navigating New Jersey's political landscape, but Satz is able to strike the right tone, said William Maer, a partner with Public Strategies Impact LLC, a Trenton lobbying firm that works for Caesars.
“The reason why he's able to work with Democrats, Republicans, no matter the complexion of the Legislature or who's in control, is that he's an honest broker,” Maer said. “People trust him because he's a decent, honest person.”
That's helped Satz to navigate developments like ongoing talks of building a Meadowlands casino and the July 2006 budget crisis that shut gaming halls for five days. But Satz said a new frontier opened when Christie arrived in 2009.
When Satz joined a team of fellow casino executives, former state officials and entertainment personalities on the transition committee, their findings were met with mixed reviews. The team touted the need to deregulate the industry, an idea that had bipartisan support that some said had been raised before Christie's arrival.
Such a bill was signed into law in early 2011, as was a measure that created a state-run tourism district around Atlantic City. But other recommendations of the transition committee — namely, that New Jersey not try to legalize in-state Internet gambling — did not play out as proposed: Despite having vetoed such a bill in 2011, Christie signed new legislation in February that allowed the state's casinos to offer online platforms.
Satz had been linked to Christie's decision to veto the first bill, with critics like Lesniak saying Caesars opposed the measure in favor of a federal solution. He and the company have made no secret of their preference in the past, but Satz said that has since changed, calling 2012 “a transition year for us” in terms of lobbying strategy.
“It became pretty clear that getting (Congress) to act on this issue was not happening,” Satz said, citing ongoing budgetary and political battles in the federal government. That means Caesars has embraced state policies in New Jersey and elsewhere, he said.
Satz said Caesars' timeline in New Jersey depends on how quickly the state Division of Gaming Enforcement finalizes its regulations.
“Online gaming is really the issue out there right now,” Satz said. “Is it all forms of gambling or is it just poker? How do you roll out the regulatory piece, and all of the technology tied to it? There are a lot of issues that will evolve as it plays out, so I think everyone's focus is on that.”
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