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All In for the Gaming Industry

by CQ Roll Call staff, CQ News

Read our latest industry leader profile on the new CEO of the American Gaming Association, Ben Miller

During his two decades as a lobbyist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, Bill Miller had an inside view of K Street’s biggest industry groups — so when the CEO job at the American Gaming Association opened, he went all in to get the gig.

“Having the positions that I did for so long, I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to run one,” Miller says. “But I also was pretty picky because I had two of the best jobs in Washington.”

Representing the $260 billion casino industry seemed like a great bet to Miller, especially now that the sector is expanding to more states with the rise of legalized sports betting after the Supreme Court last year struck down a 1992 law that banned the practice outside of Las Vegas. Online betting and tribal gaming members have also increased the AGA’s portfolio of policy and political issues.

Public opposition to gambling has decreased in recent years, though the industry still must navigate myriad regulations, especially at the state level.

Miller, who ran the chamber’s political program, plans to develop new allies on Capitol Hill and grow the casino group’s political action committee, all the while working to keep federal policymakers mostly out of the industry’s business.

“This was a job that I felt would be exciting, in part because of the evolution of the gaming industry,” says Miller, now the association’s third-ever president and chief executive. He replaced Geoff Freeman, who took over the Grocery Manufacturers Association last year. Frank Fahrenkopf, a chairman of the Republican National Committee in the 1980s, ran the AGA for its first 18 years from 1995 to 2013.

When Miller found out Freeman was leaving, he reached out to Leslie Hortum, who manages the D.C. office of search firm Spencer Stuart, which was recruiting for the job. The two worked together years ago at the chamber. Hortum says Miller’s experience at the chamber and the Business Roundtable, where he was senior vice president in charge of the group’s advocacy efforts on the Hill and with the executive branch, “coupled with his personal passion for the gaming industry, made Bill an ideal choice.”

She also calls Miller an experienced advocate and political strategist whose connections to business leaders and D.C. insiders run deep.

Miller, who is 56 and has been a co-owner of two local seafood restaurants, got to know his way around Capitol Hill as chief of staff for then-Rep. Connie Morella, a moderate Republican who represented a Democratic area in Montgomery County, Md., until she lost her seat in 2002 to Chris Van Hollen, who is now a senator. 

His most formative mentor on K Street is Tom Donohue, who has led the chamber since 1997.

“I learned from the greatest storyteller to ever live, Tom Donohue, about the power of the narrative and the power of the narrative to make sure that policymakers understand how important an industry is,” Miller says. “I worked for Tom Donohue for almost 13 years and then was recruited by Gov. Engler to be his No. 2 and was very fortunate to have Josh Bolten, former White House chief of staff, as my boss for a little bit more than a year.” John Engler, a former Michigan governor, previously ran the Business Roundtable; Bolten took over in 2017.

“Bill understands Washington very well and has great political judgment,” Donohue says. 

Miller says the casino industry has a compelling story to tell about economic development. One of his first trips on the new job, which he started Jan. 15, was to Oklahoma, where he toured tribal-owned casinos. 

“When I was in Tulsa, I got a back-of-the-house tour by a woman who was the general manager of that property and she said, ‘Look, I never thought I’d be in corporate management,’ ” he recalls. She began as a blackjack dealer, Miller says, and then she trained other dealers, eventually moving up in the business. 

From the stretch between Tulsa to Oklahoma City, the imprint of casinos on the local landscape is unmistakable, Miller says, with music venues, hotels, shops and restaurants popping up alongside the gambling enterprises. The sector, he adds, is “creating unquestionably an economic hub that then drives other businesses and creates other opportunities.”

He sees the potential to help modernize the casino business, which is a 90 percent cash-only sector. “That’s unheard of in the restaurant industry. It’s unheard of in the hotel industry. It’s unheard of in the retail space,” he says, noting that many hurdles exist to changing it.

Credit card customers, though, tend to spend more. Miller would like to lead the industry toward a “patrons’ choice” system where customers decide how they want to pay. Younger betters, especially, “walk into a casino and say, ‘I’d like some chips’ and give you a piece of plastic.”

As for its own cash, the AGA disclosed spending $1.2 million on federal lobbying in 2018, down from a high point of more than $2.5 million in 2013, according to congressional lobbying disclosures. The group’s revenue was up to $13.7 million, its 2016 IRS forms show. Freeman’s salary was about $1.6 million that year.

Miller says he’s happy with the state of the AGA, and he calls the staff a team of “high performers.” But don’t expect him to keep the group entirely as is.

“In the association business, I think you always have to find new reasons for members to find value in you, and so that means you are constantly changing, constantly adapting to the needs of the organization and the membership,” Miller says.

More than 80 of the new lawmakers on Capitol Hill this Congress come from states that permit gambling. “So we have a lot of work to do, but we have a lot of opportunities,” he adds.

What the industry doesn’t want is new federal regulation.

“Our view is this is an industry heavily and well-regulated at the state level and we’d like to see it continue that way,” Miller says. The association’s members “want us to continue to make sure up on Capitol Hill and in the administration they know who we are, what we mean to the U.S. economy and why, in particular, we are regulated very well at the state level and therefore don’t need the federal government to come in with a heavy hand to try and change that dynamic.”