Tom Grey wakes up in a strange bed in suburban Baltimore, where he's spent the night lying next to a bunch of antique dolls and a stuffed white whale.
He's been on the road for weeks, sleeping on couches and in spare rooms in places like Fargo, N.D., and Pocatello, Idaho -- towns poised to become new outposts of legalized gambling. Grey is working feverishly to stop that from happening, just as he has throughout his decade-long, bare-bones, one-man crusade against the country's casino giants.
Late last night the snowy-haired, 62-year-old Methodist minister flew into Baltimore-Washington International Airport, with a garment bag and a black duffel bag stuffed with 75 pounds of papers and files.
Barbara Knickelbein, co-chair of NoCasiNo Maryland, and her husband, Carl, met him at baggage claim and drove him to their modest home in Glen Burnie, where a cuckoo clock now chirps 8 a.m.
"Tom, it's time to get up," his hostess says softly as she taps at the door of the guest bedroom. "We've got to get going."
Grey climbs out of bed, reaches into his bag for an off-the-rack blue suit, and attaches a red-and-white "CasiNo" button to the lapel. Today he'll be the featured speaker at an anti-gambling press conference in Baltimore, where he'll try to help Knickelbein keep legalized slot machines out of Maryland. Grey considers the Free State one of his most important battles of the year, and he knows it could be one of the toughest to win.
After coffee and a muffin, he and Knickelbein drive in her silver Lincoln Town Car to a gothic stone church in downtown Baltimore. She's already e-mailed press releases promising big news in the fight over slots and carefully compiled two dozen media kits -- red folders stuffed with pamphlets and emblazoned with "No Slots" stickers. But what she's really counting on for a public relations bonanza is Grey, the country's best-known anti-gambling activist.
Nicknamed Riverboat Rambo for his ability to derail casino bids in towns along the Mississippi and other waterways, Grey once outspun Frank Fahrenkopf, the gaming industry's big-bucks lobbyist, on "60 Minutes." He's colorful and controversial and certain to say something quotable.
But when Grey steps to the lectern, the 10 rows of folding chairs in the church basement are almost completely empty. Only one television camera is poised to record his speech. Two newspaper reporters hold pads and pens (though neither will write anything for the next day's editions).
If this bothers Grey, he doesn't show it. Instead, he leans into the microphone and smiles.
"Listen," he says quietly. "We're going into battle. We've got to be ready."
The first time Tom Grey fought the casinos, he lost.
Grey's work as a pastor had brought him to Galena, Ill., a tiny, 19th-century architectural jewel not far from the Mississippi River. It was a far cry from his first congregation, on Chicago's South Side, where he'd spent 23 years ministering to the poor, and even further removed from his years in the Army, where he'd survived the carnage of Vietnam before entering the seminary.
Grey held a dim view of the slots from his days as an Army commander in Germany, when the machines on base were chewing up the meager earnings of enlisted men in his platoon.
So in 1992, after county officials approved a riverboat casino in nearby East Dubuque, Grey and his wife, Carolyn, organized a movement to put the matter on the ballot. Their neighbors, it turned out, were just as opposed to the casino as they were: 80 percent voted against riverboat gambling in a referendum. But county officials were unmoved. Dazzled by promises of jobs and tax revenue, they let the Silver Eagle open that summer.
"What really got me, where this all really started," Grey says, "was when [the county officials] ignored the result" of the referendum. "I couldn't live with it."
He helped launch a boycott of the Silver Eagle that turned the riverboat into a floating ghost, and Grey into a man obsessed.
"As a minister, I had to stand up and tell people: 'Casinos are not like shopping malls.' You see grandmothers embezzling money from their church to feed their addiction. There was a mother who let her child die in an overheated car while she went to play video poker. To say it's not harming people is a lie."
As it happened, the early 1990s were boom times for the nation's gaming industry. Major companies, such as Bally's and MGM Mirage, were riding a wave of interest in gambling loot from Native American tribal leaders, and from struggling small towns and cities.
But each time the casinos arrived in a new locale, promising steady employment and economic revival, Grey turned up as well. Wearing his CasiNo button, and his Sunday church suits, the slightly built minister would rally the opposition at town halls and in church basements. In Illinois river towns like Rock Island, Elgin and West Dundee, Grey collected the names of anti-gambling foot soldiers in a wrinkled black address book. As his network grew, so did his reputation for skillfully rallying grass-roots opposition to casino proposals. With the blessing of the United Methodist Church, which gave him a $24,000 annual stipend and the freedom to roam beyond the borders of Illinois, he launched the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion and hit the interstates.
Casino executives initially dismissed Grey as a religious zealot. And their backers had little patience for him. At a banquet hall in St. Genevieve, Mo., Grey was shouted down by drunk union workers. In Opelousas, La., picketers blocked him from a parish office. In Santa Fe, N.M., a busload of Native American protesters surrounded him in a hotel lobby and demanded he leave town.
But somewhere along the 200,000 miles he traveled in his beat-up Toyota Tercel, Grey started making an impact.
Between 1989 and 1994, gambling spread to 19 states, including Iowa, Indiana and Missouri. But in 1995 and 1996, the tide began to turn. Arkansas voters overwhelmingly rejected slots at Oaklawn Park racetrack. Mississippians turned down casino gambling in DeSoto County. Ohio voters banned riverboat casinos from four counties. And in Washington state, people refused to approve electronic gambling on Indian reservations. In all, by Grey's count, anti-gambling forces prevailed in 21 of 23 states.
Grey was exultant. He began toting around a map of the country that used colored stickers to mark the battles he had won and lost. In 1995, he carried it into the annual Riverboat Gaming Congress and Expo in St. Louis, where 200 gaming executives were plotting strategy. "We are going to strip away your cover," he told the astonished group. Gambling "is not good economics, it's poor public policy and not good for the quality of life. When we debate those issues, we whip you."
Michael Jones, a former Illinois lottery director who now consults for the gaming industry, had invited Grey to the expo and says the reaction to him was intense.
"People in the room were pissed off," Jones says. "They didn't want to see their profession challenged this way. But I thought it was excellent."
There's value in knowing your enemy, Jones says. Casino executives spent the rest of the weekend conference batting around a nagging question: Why had Tom Grey become so dangerous?
Those were heady times for Grey, though he acknowledges that much of his success back then was probably due to the booming economy. The casinos' most effective tool in selling politicians on gambling has always been the promise of new money without new taxes. By the mid-1990s, state governments didn't need the new revenue, and most took a pass.
There were exceptions, though, and one of them was Delaware.
Horse racing at Delaware Park and Dover Downs had fallen on hard times, and the tracks' owners had come to the state with a tempting proposition: Let us install slot machines and use some of the money to improve the tracks. The state would reap big revenue as well.
Grey tried to fight them, launching the Delaware Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, but the opposition never took hold. In 1994, the legislature voted to allow slots at its racetracks. By then, Grey had already written the state off as a "lost cause."
But the defeat in Delaware, Grey now realizes, was much more damaging than it first seemed. Soon, West Virginia followed suit, and suddenly Maryland had two neighbors sapping energy -- and money -- from its own struggling tracks.
For years, Maryland was a stronghold of anti-gambling sentiment. In 1998, Gov. Parris Glendening campaigned for reelection on a slogan of "No slots, no casinos, no exceptions," and polls showed his position held wide popular appeal.
But as Glendening's tenure wound down, the notion of bringing casinos to the state returned to the lips of local politicians. They were quick to note that in 2001 Marylanders made 3.4 million trips to Delaware and West Virginia to gamble. Maryland's longtime Senate president, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., said Delaware was sucking cash from his state's treasury and vowed to put a stop to it.
"The possibility of gaming is going to become a reality," Miller said at a press conference. "It's not a future that I relish, and it's not a future that I wish for. [But] it will be inevitable."
Companies with an interest in gambling started turning up in droves. They spotted a champion in Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who believes slots can revive Maryland's beleaguered racetracks and pour millions into the state's cash-starved coffers. The gambling industry helped bankroll Ehrlich's upset victory over Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a staunch gambling foe.
Now, suddenly, it's Maryland's pro-gambling forces that are in the driver's seat. The fact that the state is facing a projected budget shortfall of $1.2 billion next year only strengthens their hand.
"In West Virginia, the taxes that come [from slots] make up 10 percent of the state's budget," says Fahrenkopf, a former Republican National Committee chairman who now lobbies for the American Gaming Association. "In Delaware they make up 8.5 percent of the budget. Right now, with many governors and state legislatures facing very difficult economic circumstances, that's got to start to look pretty appealing."
What happens in Maryland in the coming weeks will be pivotal, says Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who is watching closely from across the Potomac. If Annapolis agrees to slots, the congressman says, the East Coast could face an explosion of gambling. To the north, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maine are exploring new venues for slot machines. To the south, there is potential movement in Florida. Even Virginia and North Carolina -- states with long traditions of opposing casino gambling on moral grounds -- could suddenly become vulnerable.
Wolf believes the casino industry's ultimate goal is staggering: "Quite simply, they want to put a casino within three hours of every person in America." And, he warns, gambling executives are well on their way to doing it.
Even before the casino opens, the ladies are waiting.
Pauline Preslipsky, a slender woman of 81 in a lime-green sweater, fiddles with her glasses, which have large frames shaped like butterfly wings. She and her friend Bessie VanLandingham, 77, have driven two hours from Anne Arundel County to play the slots at the Dover Downs Hotel and Conference Center, a marbled palace on the Delmarva Peninsula. But they forgot that on Sundays, the casino doesn't open until 1 p.m.
Every few minutes, a bus from Clinton or Columbia or Catonsville pulls up, disgorging gamblers from Maryland who limp to the door on canes and walkers, or roll in on wheelchairs. Some clutch zip-lock bags filled with quarters. Others carry Tupperware. And some rely on the lobby ATM, which dispenses bills no smaller than $50.
Most are on fixed incomes and struggle to pay their bills, Grey says. Nevertheless, they are paying to build Delaware's schools and pave Delaware's roads.
"This is not," he says, "the people who should be shouldering the burden for the rest of us."
Preslipsky doesn't see it that way. She ran a children's day-care center in Odenton for 40 years before retiring, and now she plays the quarter slots for enjoyment. "I don't dance, I don't play cards, I don't like movies. For me, it's excitement."
When the casino's doors finally open, she and VanLandingham file into a hall that seems to stretch forever. The machines pulse with light and flash enticing messages: "Come Party," "Big Payday" and "Jackpot!" Melodic, oddly soothing electronic notes echo through the room. It's the sound of money being lost.
VanLandingham sinks into a stool and stares intently at the spinning rows of fruit. "I start playing, and I forget about everything else. If I have a problem," she says, "it's like it disappears."
Lots of people, it seems, want to escape, and that's just fine with Dover Mayor James Hutchison. As a former cop, he was initially skeptical of slots, fearing gambling would increase crime and turn Dover into a miniature Atlantic City.
But the casino, he says, has delivered everything it promised: new life for the horse track, $64 million in annual revenues for the state, 1,000 jobs for area residents, a $60 million hotel and conference center, a new performing arts theater and much bigger crowds for NASCAR races at Dover International Speedway.
On big weekends, "every hotel within a 40-mile radius is booked," Hutchison says. "That's from nothing. How can you fault that?"
Lisa Pertzoff, executive director of the Delaware Council on Gambling Problems, doesn't dispute the slots' upside. But they also have a downside: a dramatic increase in gambling addiction.
"Our calls increased by so much that I've lost track," Pertzoff says. "They were probably running about 125 a year," before slots were approved in 1994. "By 1997, it had gone up to 600 calls."
About 70 percent of them were coming from gamblers in serious trouble with slot machines. "We had one case recently," she says, "where this woman had lost so much money, she was driving around trying to figure out how to kill herself. We kept her on the phone until the patrolman found her" getting ready to throw herself into the Delaware River.
The gaming industry points out that problem gamblers represent a tiny fraction of slots players -- 1 to 2 percent at most -- though Grey and others dispute that number. For her part, Preslipsky says she never gets depressed about gambling, even when she goes home empty-handed.
"I know I brought only so much money with me, so if I lose, it's okay," she says.
She and VanLandingham play Dover's machines for almost eight hours, stopping only to take bathroom breaks, until, finally, their $100 stakes are gone. The two caucus and decide to head home.
Along the way, they stop to eat at McDonald's. As VanLandingham notes, "It's all we could afford."
On the flight to BWI, Grey had armed himself with the statistics and studies he would need to make his case in Maryland. So when he sits down across from Baltimore radio talk show host Marc Steiner after the sparsely attended press conference, he is coiled and ready.
Steiner: "People are going to gamble. And if people are going to gamble in Delaware and people are going to gamble in West Virginia, and that money is going out of state, when we need money in-state, why not leave it right here?"
Grey: "You have to say, do the benefits outweigh the costs? If you bring gambling here, the more available you make it, the more addictive. So we're going to increase the amount of addiction. Within a 50-mile radius of casinos, bankruptcy rates go up 14 percent. Crime goes up 8 percent in counties with casinos, compared to those without. You have to ask, is that the business we want our government to get into?"
Grey repeats these figures in state after state, displaying his command of anti-gambling rhetoric. But there are times when he feels the weight of his schedule bearing down on him. Last year, he took 51 trips and spent 250 days on the road. His 2003 calendar is already filling up, though the grueling travel isn't paying off the way it once did. In November, gambling initiatives were on the ballot in six states and passed outright in four of them. In the other two, gaming interests won partial victories.
Some in the industry who once feared Grey now taunt him. He got a mocking holiday greeting from Fahrenkopf, who took the minister to task for failing to mention some of his losses in a fundraising letter.
That "was not a very virtuous thing to do," Fahrenkopf chided in his missive. "I know it's hard for you to believe, Tom, but most of 'the people' see casino gambling for what it is: a way to raise revenue, and a fun night out."
The political pressures are taking a toll on Grey. When he learns that the United Methodist Church has not listed gambling among its top priorities for 2003, he does nothing to hide his disappointment from Jim Winkler, head of the church's social action agency.
Sitting in Winkler's plush Washington office, Grey unloads: "When I go to South Dakota, and they accuse me of being a religious zealot, and they call me the American Taliban, no one stands up for me. To be honest, I'm damn mad. And I am tired. The fact that I am still the guy on this, it's embarrassing. There should be more prominent people. Where are the generals?"
Grey says little, though, about the personal cost of his efforts. He and his wife, Carolyn, have had to relocate four times in the past decade, in part because of the crunch of life on a skeleton salary. The Methodist Church has upped Grey's stipend to $3,000 a month, and pays him an additional $600 each month for travel expenses, but it's barely enough to get by.
"It's not exactly how I thought we'd spend the last 10 years," says Carolyn, who nevertheless supports the cause and her husband's single-minded devotion to it. She always has a meal waiting for him when he returns home to Rockford, Ill., and she still packs his bags for him, tucking notes inside so he'll know which tie goes with which suit.
She knows he'd never consider walking away. He's too committed -- and too stubborn.
"I do not quit," he says. "You will have to pull me off. Where else at 62 can you be in a good fight that's for something meaningful and important? I think I'm really fighting for my kids, and my grandkids, and the soul of America.
"If I woke up and said, 'I don't want to do this,' it would be different. But I wake up every morning and think, 'How am I going to get them?' "
Another morning in another spare bedroom. This time Grey wakes up below a poster of Iron Man Cal Ripken in the Michigan Avenue NE apartment of his friend Bernie Horn.
Grey has come to Washington on a mission. He's hoping to cobble together a lasting coalition of conservatives and liberals to launch a new assault against the casinos. And he's got a new strategy in mind to do it: a tobacco-style lawsuit.
The lawsuit is Topic A when he sits down with Frank Wolf in the congressman's Capitol Hill office.
"So what do you think?" Wolf immediately asks. "Are you thinking this could go the way of tobacco?"
"Oh yeah," Grey responds, pulling from his briefcase a copy of Forbes magazine, which is folded open to an article about Gary Loveman, the chairman of Harrah's Entertainment.
The story describes Harrah's Total Rewards system, which uses frequent-gambler cards to monitor each customer's gambling patterns. The casino marketing wizards use the data collected to tailor Harrah's promotions to individual customers.
Forbes hails Loveman for "deciphering human nature." Grey calls such marketing "mad science" and says it could become the casino industry's Achilles' heel.
The industry is already facing a legal challenge from David Williams, a former auditor for the Indiana Department of Revenue. In 1996, Williams was a frugal man who clipped grocery coupons and had paid off his house in Evansville, a small city on the Ohio River.
Then the company that owns the Tropicana Resort and Casino in Las Vegas opened a riverboat casino and mailed Williams a coupon redeemable for $20 in tokens. On his first visit, he lost $20. On his second, he lost $800.
"He called it electronic morphine," says his attorney, Terry Noffsinger.
The casino issued Williams a Fun Card, enabling the pit bosses to keep track of his gambling activity. During two days in 1997, they watched Williams lose $21,000 on one slot machine. During the month of March 1998, they tracked him as he lost an additional $34,000.
Finally, after a worried friend wrote to ask the riverboat executives to intervene, they agreed to ban Williams from the casino. He was admitted to an Evansville treatment center, where he stayed temporarily in a suicide ward. For a time, the intervention worked. But in 1999, Williams went back. And not only did the casino renew action on his Fun Card, but it began sending him promotions to get him to come more often.
Patrick A. Shoulders, an attorney for the casino's owner, Aztar Indiana Gaming Corp., says the casino isn't responsible for Williams's behavior and doesn't have any legal obligation "to seek out, identify or eject alleged problem gamblers." The reason, he says, is that a $100 loss may be tough for a working-class gambler, but mean nothing to someone who makes $10 million a year. "To try to size up what is too much to lose for each individual is putting an unreasonable and impractical burden on the business."
The Williams case is scheduled to come to trial in April in U.S. District Court, and it has become a source of great hope for Grey. When the casino banned Williams, Grey says, it acknowledged that he was a gambling addict, potentially exposing the whole industry to liability.
This idea is exciting to John Richard, the director of the Center for Study of Responsive Law, an organization founded by Ralph Nader. During a meeting with Grey at the center, Richard offers to research a "friend of the court" brief. But he also reminds Grey that a legal battle of this magnitude is not won overnight. It could
involve a long series of losses before anything resembling a victory.
"In the tobacco cases," Richard explains later, "the first 50 or 60 cases didn't provide anything except documents. It's a huge uphill fight. But then look at Tom."
Tucked in Grey's briefcase is the tattered cardboard map of the United States that he has been keeping in a large zip-lock bag. The battle in Maryland still looks bleak, and the outlook may not be better in Pennsylvania, Florida or Massachusetts.
Grey remains undaunted. The odds that he'll win may be long, but don't bet against him.
Matthew Mosk, a writer for the Post's Metro section, wrote about gambling during the 2002 Maryland governor's race.