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COLUMN ONE : 'Riverboat Rambo' Vs. Casino Titans : Illinois pastor Tom Grey travels the nation in a beat-up Toyota, rallying citizens who want to keep gaming out of their towns.

October 24, 1995|SHERYL STOLBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PALM SPRINGS — The wandering clergyman from Illinois is drafting his battle plan. He's got a map of California spread out before him and a red pen in his hand. He is plotting his course, although he has no clue where he is and little idea where he is going.

Tom Grey is undaunted. They don't call him Riverboat Rambo for nothing.

Grey searches for places whose names he cannot pronounce. Where's Irvington? he wants to know, looking for Irwindale. What about Azuma? He means Azusa. Soon, the map is a connect-the-dots chart linking 14 cities--including this famed desert resort--that appear to have nothing in common.

Nothing, that is, except all have ballot initiatives that propose gambling. And most can expect a visit from Grey, a balding renegade in an off-the-rack khaki suit who has spent three years rambling across America on a crusade to stop the expansion of legalized gambling. His success has caught the nation's fastest-growing industry, the betting business, quite off guard.

As executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling (a high-falutin' name for an organization that, at best, can be called loose-knit), Grey has no computer, no cellular phone, no beeper, not even an office--unless you count his car, a 1993 blue Toyota Tercel with strips of duct tape where Sophie, the family dog, chewed a hole through the interior.

He keeps a list of other people's fax numbers in a little black book. When someone asks to send him a fax, he gives out the number of whomever he intends to visit next. In Illinois last week, he stopped in three cities to get faxes.

Could this really be the man a Louisiana consultant for the gambling industry branded "our most dangerous man in America?"

Indeed he is. Over the past eight years, as state and local governments have looked to casinos and riverboats to cure their economic woes, legalized gambling has exploded. Now, this rapid--some say, unfettered--growth is emerging as a national public policy issue, both in Congress and the presidential campaign. While proponents say gambling provides jobs and tax revenue, critics say casinos actually hurt local economies and destroy families by promoting addiction.

Grey the Crusader

The chief spokesman for the scattered group that industry insiders caustically call "the antis" is Grey, 55, who has demonstrated a remarkable knack for building grass-roots networks. The local coalitions he assembles sometimes include odd bedfellows, linking church ladies with good government activists and racetrack owners who believe casinos will hurt their business.

In West Virginia, where the Legislature was contemplating a bill to allow riverboats, Grey organized 25 town meetings to push for a state referendum. The bill was withdrawn. In Pennsylvania, where Grey helped gather 50,000 signatures for a ballot initiative, a similar bill met with a similar fate. In his home state, Grey has organized 60 local groups and helped draft 36 anti-gambling ballot proposals in three years--and there has been no new riverboat legislation since he started.

He is a study in contradictions: a Methodist minister with a Dartmouth degree who was also an infantry commander in Vietnam. A quarter-century later, he fancies himself a soldier once more, dropping onto foreign soil and staking out his turf. A critic in Missouri once grumbled that Grey "treats this crucial matter of public policy as if it was the last siege of Hamburger Hill."

Which is precisely what he was doing on a balmy October Sunday in Palm Springs, where a small coterie of activists are relying on Grey to help defeat a plan to put a card room in an empty I. Magnin department store. Backers of the initiative make the usual arguments of economic revitalization for a city that sorely needs it.

This is an argument that Grey does not buy, citing studies, most recently a book by Massachusetts economist Robert Goodman, who argues that gambling "cannibalizes local economies" by shifting dollars away from restaurants and existing businesses toward casinos. This, he contends, is what will happen in Palm Springs, although for the moment, his mind is on a larger landscape.

"The three battlegrounds for us are Maryland, Chicago and California," he says excitedly, scribbling with the red pen. "They need Maryland to crack the mid-Atlantic states. We cut 'em down in West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania and we've held Maryland, but they're coming back at us again. . . .

"They need Chicago to open up and penetrate a major urban city. If they get Chicago, Detroit's gonna go. . . . And the last is California. You have 22% of the population, do you know that? And they're after New York in '97. . . . "

The "they" in Grey's lexicon are companies such as Circus Circus, ITT-Sheraton, Harrah's and Mirage Resorts, biggies in the $40-billion-a-year gambling business. Grey has fought these companies and a host of smaller concerns in their efforts to expand gambling in 20 states. He has lost, he says, in only two.

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