J. BOB TRAXLER: "Father" of the Michigan Lottery Reflects on Long Career
August 17, 2017
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J. Robert "Bob" Traxler
(EDITOR'S NOTE: The following column was written by Tim Skubick, host of Off the Record for WKAR radio and television, who interviewed legendary local state representative and Member of Congress J. Robert Traxler, now 86.)
He was the co- father of the Michigan lottery. Was he (1) Bill Milliken (2) Gus Harrison (3) Bill Nugent or (4) None of the Above?
If it had not been for J. Robert Traxler and his Senate sidekick John "The Fox" Bowman, the most often asked question in the state would have never materialized. Where does the lottery money go?
After reading the New York Times which did a feature on the first lottery in New Hampshire, Rep. Bob Traxler launched his legislative effort in 1972 to create the first lottery in the Mid-West. Sen. Bowman passed away years ago, but Mr. Traxler just turned 86 on July 21 and was in good spirits when he recounted the ups and downs of bringing the lottery to this state.
It's an inside story that's never been told. He recalls his legislation was not a slam dunk.
First Gov. Bill Milliken opposed it but his office did very little to hamper Mr. Traxler's ground breaking effort. Turns out he had the most challenges from a fellow Democrat, Rep. Dominic "The God Father" Jacobetti from the Upper Peninsula.
Mr. Traxler wanted to ear mark the lottery profits for education and wanted a one person "Gambling Czar" to run it. Jake, who chaired the house appropriations committee, wanted to pump the money into the state's General Fund where he could determine where the money went. The chair also wanted a three person panel to run the lottery bureau. Mr. Traxler prevailed against the powerful chairman in a text book example of how to neutralize an opponent long before he knew what hit him.
"I was very close to House Speaker Bill Ryan," J. Bob recalls. And, long before the legislation was drafted, he met with the speaker to secure his commitment to use the money for schools and send the legislation to the House Judiciary committee chaired by none other than, Mr. Traxler. And although there was a floor fight over the lottery mechanics, the Judiciary chair prevailed noting that having one person run the games meant there was full accountability to assure the public that everything was on the up and up. "Jake was unhappy," he chuckles.
Another potential road block was the horse racing lobby which back in the 70's was quite influential thanks in large part to the lobbying efforts of "King" Jimmy Karoub of the Karoub lobbying shop.Traxler said that the industry did not know how the competition would play out regarding betting at the tracks. In the end, it did not try to block the lottery and concluded it would result in bigger purses for the ponies. In retrospect, that did not happen.
When the voters approved the lottery, the first drawing was held November 13th, 1972 in, where else, Bay City.
A life-long Democrat, even though his mailman daddy was from the other party, Mr. Traxler raised some eyebrows when the decidedly conservative GOP Gov. John Engler rewarded the Democrat with one of the plum posts in state government i.e. a coveted seat on the Mackinac Island Park Commission. He held that seat from 1992-2005 with all the perks at his disposal.
The obvious question was, why would the GOP governor do this for a staunch Democrat?
In another text book example of how to play the game, during his nine terms in the U.S. Congress Mr. Traxler had worked on reforming the retirement system for federal civil servants. So when Mr. Engler decided he wanted to replicate the reforms in the state civil service system, he called Mr. Traxler in.
"Would you talk to skeptical Democrats in the legislature about this? the governor inquired.
Mr. Traxler said yes.
The governor scored a victory and after that, "I reminded him of that," Mr. Traxler laughs.
And as a result for 13 years, he warmed a seat on the park commission compliments of the Republican governor who also knew how to play the game.
Mr. Traxler knew as a young man that he wanted to work for the government. "It is not a swamp," he reflects as he has a resume that includes Bay County assistant prosecutor, serving in the Michigan House from 1962-1974. He also sat on his alma mater's board of Trustees at MSU from 1990-2000 and capped it off with his stint in the U.S. House.
Now dealing with an early case of vascular dementia he and his bride Jean are "enjoying life" still in their Bay City home and still enjoying the many fruits of his labor in the political vineyards spanning five decades.
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