No Dice | Feature | Chicago Reader

No Dice 

"This is a street fight," says anti-casino crusader Tom Grey. "This is no church picnic."

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

There is nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal, and that's why Tom Grey is ready for mortal combat. Grey, a Methodist minister and Vietnam war veteran, has been tracking the beast since 1992 and he knows it's bleeding. The "beast" is legalized gambling, which has grown for 20 years at a phenomenal rate in this country--most of the growth coming from a proliferation of casinos on riverboats and Native American reservations. The amount of money legally wagered in 1995 exceeded $480 billion.

Spearheading this bull market, the American Gaming Association has done everything possible to cleanse gambling of its historic ties to organized crime. The big-time forces in the industry are such visible, reputable firms as Hilton Hotels (which bought Bally Entertainment) and the ITT Corporation (which owns Caesars Palace). "Gaming" is presented as "family friendly entertainment," a spur to local economic growth, and a generator of tax revenues for schools and social services.

"It's a lie and a fraud," says Grey, 57, director of the National Coalition Against Legal Gambling. "Gambling is not good economics, not good politics, and not good for the quality of anybody's life. It's a predatory industry. They're trying to make this dangerous thing seem benign, and it's not working anymore."

Last year, proposals to introduce or expand gambling were either defeated or kept off the ballot in 23 states and the District of Columbia. In only one state, Michigan, did gambling interests make progress. The change of atmosphere, gambling proponents concede, is largely due to the inexhaustible Grey and the minions he energizes.

Last October a Copley News Service poll of Illinois voters reported 66 percent opposed to any expansion of riverboat gambling in the state. Two years earlier, the citizenry had been evenly divided on the same issue.

For the first time since Illinois authorized riverboat casinos in 1991, their revenues fell in 1996. The ten boats still grossed well, taking in $1.13 billion, but this sum represented a 4 percent drop from the previous year's take.

"We're winning the hearts and minds of the people," says Grey. He's sitting in a small room at his alma mater, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston. He's in the Chicago area for part of a day; it's a stopover in his endless trek around the country. "The problem is, as far as the gambling industry is concerned it doesn't matter what the people want. It's what they want. Representative government doesn't work very well when private interests are involved."

That's why he fears a sneaky deal in the Illinois legislature this spring. Gambling interests are well aware the tide is turning, he says, and they hope to get their boats firmly anchored before a tidal wave of public opinion becomes too strong for politicians to resist.

The pieces are in place. Representative Lou Lang of Skokie, a longtime supporter of gambling, explained this week that his House Bill 169 would open the way for 14 new casinos, including five in Chicago, four in Rosemont, and two in Lake County. It would allow riverboats to remain permanently docked (so customers could come and go more freely) and would permit some of the casinos in Cook County to be based on land. It also would authorize slot machines and video poker machines at racetracks.

But Lang insisted his bill "is not about gambling but about education." Its purpose, he said, is to generate $1.4 billion in additional taxes for school construction and renovation. The General Assembly has been thrashing about for years trying to find new ways to finance schools, and Lang's sweeping proposal could tempt legislators long opposed or indifferent to gambling--especially since the increased revenues it promises would permit a decrease in real estate taxes.

Four other bills that have been proposed in the current legislative session call for more casinos and raise the ceiling on bingo prizes.

To grease passage, gambling interests have been pouring money into legislators' coffers at a spendthrift rate. A study last fall by the watchdog group Public Access reported that almost $500,000 had been contributed by gambling support groups during the previous 18 months to the campaign committees of senate president James "Pate" Philip and then house speaker Lee Daniels. Both men denied that this largess would in any way influence their judgment or their instructions to their colleagues.

Governor Edgar originally distanced himself from the legislative proposals. But he declared in February that he was rethinking his position--he wasn't sure he still opposed such new gambling operations as slot machines at horse tracks.

To counter the offensive he saw coming, Grey, in cooperation with a coalition called the Illinois Council Against Alcohol Abuse, has been rallying antigambling groups all over the state. But just 26 of the state's 177 legislators have signed the coalition's pledge to support a full moratorium on gambling. Largely in response to the coalition, a senate committee voted 12 to 1 to move a bill to the floor that would put a statewide referendum on gambling on the November 1998 ballot. But then nothing further happened, and in March the bill expired.

"Look," Grey says. "Two years ago the senate approved a bill for a state referendum, but it got nowhere because it was permanently bottled up in the house. Down deep, the ballot box is what [gambling promoters] fear. They cringe when you talk about taking it to the ballot box."

Yet even the ballot box is a useless tool if the vote is only advisory, Grey has discovered. That discovery is what transformed this small-town minister into the fire-breathing crusader derided by gambling's supporters as "Riverboat Rambo."

At the age of 25 Grey was an army captain, a military adviser to the South Vietnamese. He learned a lot about jungle warfare, he says, and about what tactics work against overwhelming forces. In a sense, he admits, he's been "replaying Vietnam" ever since.

When he returned to the States he entered the seminary, was ordained a minister, served in two inner-city Chicago churches, and eventually became pastor of a small congregation near peaceful Galena. In 1992, gambling interests applied for a license to put a riverboat upriver on the Mississippi near East Dubuque. Grey says the vast majority of Jo Daviess County residents didn't want it. So he took up their cause, worked with church groups and grassroots civic organizations, and got a referendum on the ballot. It was no contest: 81 percent of the voters in one of the largest turnouts in county history opposed the riverboat. But the Silver Eagle soon came paddling in anyhow. The Illinois State Gambling Board, citing the advisory character of the referendum, said the vote would have had no effect even had it been unanimous.

Grey was outraged. Certain that churches all over the state would rally against such a violation of social justice and democratic principles, he persuaded Sheldon Duecker, then Methodist bishop of northern Illinois, to hold a press conference. "Five ministers showed up. Five!" he says. "Here's a major societal problem and the churches aren't interested. It's no wonder we're dying institutionally. We're irrelevant."

But Grey persuaded Duecker to relieve him of his parish duties and provide him a modest salary and health benefits so he could go to war. Grey got in his 1985 Honda and has scarcely been out of a car since--"265 days on the road last year alone." He is constantly speaking, organizing, and networking, not to mention distributing literature and alerting the press.

He loves it. "I feel privileged," he says. "Where else could a guy whale away at bad hombres like I'm doing and not get put in jail?"

His rhetoric is a unique, sometimes bewildering combination of allusions and metaphors drawn from Scripture and warfare.

"I'm like a point man in the army," he says. "He goes ahead of the squad, sees what's there, and draws whatever fire there is.

"The idea is to throw confusion in Pharaoh's ranks, keep him off balance. When they're pushing for land casinos our objective is to hold them in the swamp, don't let 'em get a foothold on dry land.

"I'm working with Gideon's army, a ragtag, outnumbered bunch. But we're strong because our cause is righteous."

Wherever he goes, Grey gets a lot of press attention.

In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he urged a citizens group to support an antigambling referendum. Even if it doesn't stop them cold, he said, "it's like holding a cross to Dracula."

In Decatur he called riverboat operators "snake-oil salesmen--what's theirs is theirs and what's yours is negotiable."

"This is a street fight," he proclaimed to an anticasino group near Baltimore as he distributed "casiNO" buttons. "This is no church picnic."

He is no less volatile in enemy territory. Finagling a chance to speak at the 1995 Riverboat Gaming Congress and Expo in Saint Louis, he told the gathering of casino executives, lawyers, and gambling machine manufacturers, "We are going to strip away your political cover. Yours is a predatory enterprise that will eventually fall under the weight of its own corrupting influence on people and public institutions." For his candor, noted a local paper, he received "only polite applause."

Grey has had an impact. In West Virginia, whose legislature was prepared to pass a bill allowing riverboats, he organized 25 highly publicized town meetings. The bill was quietly withdrawn. A similar bill was pulled in Pennsylvania after Grey and his supporters gathered 50,000 signatures in opposition.

He's managed to obtain enthusiastic antigambling statements from Ralph Reed's far-right Christian Coalition and from liberal consumer advocate Ralph Nader: "If I can get those two extremes to agree on something I must be doing something right."

His ceaseless activism has kept his opponents in a state of nervous tension. "This man is dead sincere and firm in his beliefs," wrote midwest editor Jack Gordon in the industry publication Riverboat Gaming Report. "As to our foundations in the gambling business and financial good health, he is our most dangerous man in America." Gordon compared Grey to another mesmerizing zealot: Adolf Hitler. "Tom Grey sees and hears what he believes in his soul: Gambling is not good for 'people,'" Gordon wrote. "If that isn't moralistic dominance, then I don't know the meaning of the concept."

Doug Pool, senior vice president of the Mirage Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas, told the Sun-Times that Grey is "a merchant of misinformation who uses scare tactics--like compulsive gamblers beat up their wives and other almost patently ridiculous assertions."

Unlike many of his predecessors in the ministry, Grey doesn't claim gambling's bad because Jesus or the Bible says so, and he rarely uses terms such as "family values."

"They try to box me in as a religious zealot or some kind of wandering fanatic," he says. "Well, people are beginning to see this is a social justice thing. We're really fighting a monopoly that ruins the economy and corrupts our political system." He has armed himself with research.

In The Luck Business, a much-debated book in the gaming industry, Robert Goodland, a professor of environmental design and planning at Hampshire College, argues that the economic benefits of casinos are inevitably short-lived. Goodland believes that casinos eviscerate other recreational businesses, prey far more on local residents than on tourists, and ultimately kill off two jobs for every job they create. "Gambling is a very deceptive form of economic development," writes Goodland. "You provide monopoly enterprises to a few businesses, and they will do exceedingly well. You will create jobs--but you will lose jobs in other industries, and you will lose revenues and taxes elsewhere."

That assessment was echoed last year by William Hall, director of the Illinois Economic and Fiscal Commission. He told a legislative task force on gambling that the number of casinos in Illinois was already close to the saturation level, largely because of growing competition from northwest Indiana. Aside from the casino jobs, Hall said his commission could find no evidence of economic gains attributable to the riverboats. Grey finds ironic the argument that Illinois should open casinos in Chicago to keep its people from gambling in Indiana. "What that comes down to is that Illinois should screw its own citizens before Indiana can screw them," he says.

Though the direct economic effects of gambling may be a matter of debate, there is undeniable evidence that the number of compulsive gamblers is growing--at a staggering social cost. Randolph Baker, a gambling apologist with the University of Nevada's Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming, claims compulsive gambling is the problem the industry should most fear. It's the one "opponents are beginning to latch on to," he declares in the Gaming and Wagering Bulletin, "and to be quite honest it is a legitimate concern."

An Ohio study found that the number of compulsive gamblers in the state rose from 1.7 percent of all gamblers in 1989 to 5.4 percent in 1994, which was four years after riverboat casinos were permitted. An Illinois study estimated that almost 50 percent of casino revenues come from problem and compulsive gamblers, though they compose about 5 percent of the gambling public.

Where compulsive gambling exists, says Goodland, so do substantially increased rates of divorce, psychiatric treatment, theft, and embezzlement. He estimated the cost to society of each identified problem gambler in Ohio at $13,200 for 1993--$250 million in all.

In Illinois, residents wager about $18 billion a year (6 percent of their disposable income), third highest in the country behind New Jersey and Nevada. The indirect costs of compulsive wagering, though uncalculated, have to be high.

Tom Grey is willing to discuss and debate all of this at any time with anybody. At a mid-March gathering of sympathizers at the Arlington Heights library, he introduced onetime Boston mob bookmaker Lex Varris, who told how he lured college girls into making exorbitant bets and then led them "up the ladder" to petty crime and more to pay their mounting debts. The bookmaker insisted that all he did was take advantage of relatively affluent students--not the elderly, not the poor. But the casino moguls, he exclaimed--"they'll cash your welfare check, they'll cash your Social Security check. They want it all, they'll take everything, and they know how to get it."

Surrounded by well-wishers, Grey urged everyone to support antigambling candidates for the Arlington Heights village board and to sign up for the Illinois campaign. "It's all so obvious," he said. "Wouldn't you think someone smarter than me would be fighting this thing?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos of Tom Grey by Eugene Zakusilo.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Robert McClory

  • Medical Miracles

    At Saint Basil's Free People's clinic, the only thing missing is a billing department.
    • Sep 18, 1997
  • Full Pardon

    Murder, Revenge and the Power of Forgiveness
    • Jan 16, 1997
  • Angel of Mercy

    Joy Darrow: activist, journalist, giver of shelter. Was she looking for peace or had she already found it?
    • Sep 12, 1996
  • More »

Agenda Teaser

Music
November 18
Performing Arts
Casa Propia Aguijón Theater
October 26

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories