All Bets Are Off

The gambling interests who want America to get into the Viva Las Vegas spirit have shelled out more than $100 million in political donations at the state level during the last five years. All that cash has bought room to grow for the captains of commercial wagering. But they probably should have played their hands more conservatively. Despite laying down some big bets on expansion of the industry, the high rollers repeatedly have been whipped by players with chump change in comparison -- from church congregations to PTA groups."The industry is in a doldrums right now," says Marvin Roffman, a Philadelphia-based securities analyst who specializes in the gambling industry. "Lately there has been an impasse at the state level."Since 1994, voters all over the country have defeated plans to expand gambling. Big Las Vegas operators are withdrawing from the fight, leaving it to smaller developers. Although voters approved three casinos in Michigan, expansion has been shot down in nine other states."I feel very much like David against Goliath," says Susan McGill, a 30-year-old real estate appraiser from Pittsburg, California, who recently fought a ballot initiative that would have allowed a local developer to build a casino-style card club in her town. When McGill learned of the proposal, she put her plans to start a family on hold and dropped out of her church choir to help lead the opposition. "I wore out a pair of shoes walking fliers around town," she says. "But we did it. We won."Other victories against long odds: Florida: Losing a $16 Million BetIn 1994, the gambling industry seemed to be on a roll. The number of states with casinos had jumped from just two to more than 20 in six years. Gambling palaces were popping up on riverboats along the Mississippi and on American Indian reservations all over the country. Casinos in Florida seemed like a sure thing.So sure, in fact, that Vegas interests and other big casinos spent about $16 million on a 1994 ballot initiative to legalize casinos. The state already has a lottery, racetrack wagering, Indian gaming, and "cruise to nowhere" gambling boats that take bettors on trips outside regulated waters.The casino industry bought expensive TV ads and sponsored splashy job fairs to show off casino "career opportunities" (i.e., hotel housekeeping and serving drinks). Squaring off against the casinos was a coalition of clergy, elected officials, and community groups, backed with small donations and some money from Walt Disney World.In Miami Beach, one of the cities targeted as a home for the new casinos, Mayor Seymour Gelber headed the fight against the ballot measure. "Casinos fit best in communities that are having trouble surviving -- the suckers," he said. "We're not like that."To challenge casino backers, Gelber dropped in at one event to take on the big names. "I went to the job fair and captured all the media they'd drawn out to see the thing," says the 77-year-old mayor. "I got to lambaste guys like Donald Trump, which I enjoyed." And it worked. The would-be legalizers lost by a 24 percent margin.Ohio: Riverboats Get SunkGambling developers risked about $9 million in the Buckeye State last year, when a group of local concerns backed by the likes of Alan Spitzer and Eddie DeBartolo Jr. put a proposal on the ballot to allow riverboat casinos. But Ohio already has a lottery and racetrack betting, and gambling opponents did not want to see any expansion beyond that."We had a lot of data by that point, and none of it spoke well of gambling," says David Zanotti, head of the Ohio Roundtable, a public policy group. "People were finding gambling expansion was ruining lives. It was not contributing to economic growth. It was just making gambling companies wealthy."A coalition that included business leaders, PTA chapters, and church groups campaigned against the riverboats all over the state, and had a powerful ally in Republican Gov. George Voinovich. "If there is good grassroots organization, gambling can't win, no matter how much it spends," says Mike Dawson, who was Voinovich's top staffer on the gambling measure. "I was amazed. I've been in politics a long time, and I've never seen anything like this before."By October, gambling opponents had raised about $1 million to counter the gambling backers' war chest. Most of the money went toward one television ad, which lifted an image of a majestic riverboat from a pro-gambling TV spot and then sank it. So did the voters: More than 60 percent of them opposed the measure.New York: Casinos Go BustGambling interests have spent at least $1.7 million to lobby the New York state legislature for the last two years. But now they've gone bust.New York already has Indian gambling and racetrack betting, and this year private interests pushed an amendment to the state's constitution that would have legalized casinos. Although gambling backers had to first win the legislature's approval, the odds were considered very good.But the state Senate clobbered the measure 41-19, following three weeks of frenzied activism by an unlikely political alliance of religious groups, hotel and entertainment interests from the Big Apple, and lobbyists for real estate magnate Donald Trump, who seems to favor gambling as long as it offers no competition to his New Jersey casinos."We threw this group together," says the Rev. Thomas Grey, head of the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion. Grey, a Methodist minister who first took on gambling in his own small town in Illinois, rallied the coalition that crushed the New York casino legislation. "We came from nowhere, and we just stung them."California: Where's Juanita?In the Golden State, almost anything goes in the wager wars. Just ask Juanita -- if you can ever find her.The state has Indian casinos, lavish card clubs, a lottery, and racetrack betting. Gambling interests from all over the country have dumped about $14 million into state politics in the past five years, effectively quashing any efforts to enact state regulation.Although backers have had less luck at the local level, it's hardly slowed them down. A group in Palm Springs plans to put legalized slots on the ballot, and a big electoral battle is expected next year.One statewide battle, over a proposal to allow racetracks to have casinos, may have fizzled. The proposal's fate is now uncertain -- and mysterious. Filed as a ballot initiative by someone named Juanita Long last December, the measure needs 693,230 signatures to qualify. But first it needs Juanita, whom no one can seem to track down. The phone number listed on the filing has been disconnected, and the address listed is a mail drop."There are always people out there who like this idea," says Sue Lempert, the deputy mayor of San Mateo, who helped beat back a local card club proposal when she was a city council member. "When it comes to gambling, you have to be ready for anything."

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