CHEROKEE — Jacque Esslinger packed a jar of quarters for her three-day trip to the North Carolina Republican Convention at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort.
A GOP delegate from Vance County, the 66-year-old part-time retired accountant planned on sinking no more than $20 into the slot machines during the convention — the first to be held in the Western North Carolina town of Cherokee. Party political rally, part platform polishing, the convention ended Sunday, drawing close to 1,000 Republicans from across the state.
And it drew an obvious question: What about gambling?
Owned by the 15,000-member Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the casino is operated by Ceasars Entertainment Corp. and regulated by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act passed in 1988. The law specifies that gaming revenue must be used to fund tribal government operations or programs, provide for the welfare of the tribe and promote economic development.
Harrah’s opened in 1997 and offers 150,000 square feet of gaming space with 3,600 slot machines. In 2011, the Republican-led legislature and former Gov. Bev Perdue approved a gambling compact that allows for live table games and video poker; there are 130 tables for games such as blackjack, roulette and craps.
The casino employs nearly 2,500, according to the tribe; $96 million in payroll expenses were contributed to the local economy in 2013. In addition, the median household income in Swain County has jumped from $15,765 in 1990 to $43,426 from 2008 to 2012.
But unlike Esslinger, some Republicans opposed to gambling reportedly did not attend the convention.
Esslinger said she supports individual choices, including a parent’s right to choose whatever school and medical treatment he wants for his children.
The casino also gave Jackson Pethtal another reason to attend the convention. A delegate from Mecklenburg County, Pethtal travels to Harrah’s twice a year to gamble.
“This was like killing two birds with one stone,” the 38-year-old said.
A computer analyst, Pethtal said he likes gambling for its strategy, mental exercise and an attempt to beat the house. He didn’t fare so well, losing $150 on the slots and at the black jack table.
He said he assumed the tribe wanted the convention in the town of Cherokee now that another tribal casino is being considered for North Carolina. The Catawba Indian Nation in September filed an application, which is under federal review, to build a casino west of Charlotte in Kings Mountain. Cherokee Valley River Casino, a second partnership between the Eastern Band and Caesars Entertainment, is also slated to open in Cherokee County about a year from now, according to company leaders.
Glen Bradley, a 40-year-old delegate from Franklin County, had no interest in gambling, yet he supported the tribe’s effort to add live gaming tables a few years ago. He said that, because the tribe is a sovereign nation, state lawmakers shouldn’t be the ones to make the decision.
“We don’t have that authority,” said point-of-sale technician from Youngsville.
The gaming compact signed by Perdue in 2011 gives a percentage of the revenue from the table games, estimated at $2 million to $3 million a year, to public education.
Transylvania delegate Pam Dashiell had no intentions of gambling, she said. The 73-year-old from Pisgah Forest was far too busy with the convention.
Dashiell, a retired speech pathologist, isn’t opposed to gambling; she has played the slot machines in the past.
Cherokee County Commissioner C.B. McKinnon also had no plans to visit the casino, which is connected to the hotel and event center with a sky walk.
“I’m not a gambler,” the 47-year-old said.