When Ray Lesniak's obituary is written, he is likely to be remembered for revolutionizing the U.S. gaming industry by introducing sports-betting legislation in New Jersey which led to the landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court on May 14, 2018.
Since that 6-3 decision, which nullified the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, New Jersey and 36 other states have joined Nevada in a booming sports-betting market that has transformed land-based and online gambling operations in the country.
Lesniak retired from the New Jersey legislature in January 2018, having authored not only the state's legislation that ultimately led to the end of the federal ban on expanded sports wagering, but also the 2013 law that authorized internet casino gaming in the Garden State.
But at 76, former New Jersey state Senator Lesniak, a Democrat, now seems far more interested in pursuing a future career in Congress than resting on his laurels.
A few significant caveats are preventing Lesniak from throwing his hat into the ring for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2024.
One of them is former Democratic Representative Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, who held the seat Lesniak wants before losing his bid for re-election last year.
“Number one, I believe he does have first dibs because he was a sitting congressman for two terms,” Lesniak told VIXIO GamblingCompliance in a phone interview.
Malinowski is expected to reach a decision on whether he will run again by the end of November.
Lesniak said he is not interested in participating in a divisive Democratic primary which could boost the re-election campaign of Republican Representative Tom Kean, Jr., who defeated Malinowski last November.
Kean is the son of former New Jersey Republican Governor Thomas Kean, who also served as chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, better known as the 9/11 Commission.
But Lesniak candidly acknowledges his biggest obstacle if he runs is the fact that he does not even live in the congressional district he would represent in the House.
“Obviously, that would be a campaign attack against me, but certainly the district has so many wonderful towns that, if elected to Congress, I would move into one of the interesting towns that make up the 7th Congressional District,” said Lesniak, who is a resident of Elizabeth, New Jersey.
The focus on a potential run for Congress got started on February 22 when Lesniak issued a statement calling on Congressman Kean to distance himself from Republicans opposed to the U.S.’ financial aid to Ukraine in its war with Russia.
Lesniak, whose grandparents were born in Poland near the border with Ukraine, said the thought of challenging Kean in next year’s election had not even crossed his mind when he wrote the news release.
But the light bulb came on when a reporter called to ask him about the news release and whether he planned to run against Kean in 2024.
It would be difficult to find anyone who enjoys the sting of political combat more than Lesniak, who decided to leave the New Jersey Senate after 35 years to make an ill-fated run for governor in 2017.
Even after a federal appeals court in Philadelphia rejected earlier iterations of his sports-betting legislation three times in three years, Lesniak offered another version he called the “nuclear option” which he abandoned after the U.S. Supreme Court finally agreed to hear his case.
That was after the Supreme Court rejected a previous sports-betting appeal by New Jersey in June 2014.
“I’m not saying I would have won the governor’s race in 2017 if the Supreme Court had ruled then instead of a year later, but I would not have been trounced like I was (by current Democratic Governor Phil Murphy),” Lesniak said.
Perhaps the clearest sign that Lesniak wants to run for Congress is his evolving opinion of former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has been his nemesis and may seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.
Both Christie and Lesniak have been inducted into SBC's Sports Betting Hall of Fame, but their mutual hostility made headlines during the sports-betting debate in New Jersey.
“We can kiss and make up,” Lesniak told VIXIO.
If he succeeds in his quixotic attempt to be elected to Congress, the ever-boisterous Lesniak would relish the opportunity to debate ultra conservative Republicans on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
“I would be licking my chops,” he said.