It was noontime one day last week at the Stop & Shop Liquor Store in Northeast Washington, but only a few customers straggled in to buy peanuts and an occasional bottle of whiskey. "Never is much business in January," lamented Robert (Buddy) Weitzman, the store's owner.
Just two blocks further east along Rhode Island Avenue, across the state line into Maryland business was brisk at Bass' Liquors in Mount Rainier. Manager Mark Werner served up chicken and sparerib sandwiches and sold half pints of booze to numerous laborers on their noon hour, including many from the District of Columbia.
The difference between the two stores was a simple added attraction: The Maryland store offered liquor buyers a chance to play the state's popular daily numbers lottery, while there is no such legal game in the District.
It is such a discrepancy -- and subsequent loss of liquor sales to Maryland stores -- that has turned Weitzman and other D.C. liquor retailers into some of the most ardent supporters of the prospective May 5 gambling referendum in the District. There are 850 lottery outlets in Maryland, and the top 19 in sales are in Prince George's County, mostly at liquor stores near the District line.
The proposed ballot initiative is simple but potentially far-reaching. The city's electorate would decide whether to legalize city run lotteries and daily numbers games like the ones in Maryland, pari-mutuel wagering on jai alai and dog racing, bingo games and raffles and social gambling in homes and offices where no organizer reaps a profit.
The referendum would not legalize wagering on any other sports, such as professional football or horse racing, or allow the construction of casinos in the District.
The referendum initiative, the city's first such measure, would bypass any action on gambling by the D.C. City Council. Council member William Spaulding (D-Ward 5) last year bottled up a proposed advisory gambling referendum in the Government Operations Committee.
If there is a referendum, and if the voters approve legalized gambling, Congress would review the proposed measure for 30 legislative days.
The D.C. Board of Election and Ethics will not formally certify for another two or three weeks whether gambling supporters have collected the required 12,451 signatures of registered voters to put the gambling issue on the same ballot as the presidential primary.
But gambling supporters, headed by an umbrella group called the D.C. Committee on Legalized Gambling, say they are convinced, after an initial failure last year, that they now have enough signatures. Martin E. Firestone, the committee's lawyer, said about 13,500 valid signatures have been given to the elections board.
While the ballot issue is still not a certainty, gambling supporters already are predicting that city voters will overwhelmingly approve legalized gambling. a
Even the Rev. Raymond Robinson, chairman of the city's influential Committee of 100 Ministers -- at this point the only known organized opponent of gambling in the District -- conceded that "if it gets on the ballot, it might pass."
The Washington Post in mid-1978 polled 1,020 registered Democrats in the city, who represent the single biggest group of D.C. voters and 57 percent of the respondents said they favored legalized gambling, compared to 32 percent against and 11 percent undecided.
Robinson said those figures may still be representative of gambling sentiment in the District. Even black Baptists, whose ministers have been among the most vocal against legalized gambling in the city, said in the poll they favored gambling by a margin of more than 2 to 1.
Both gambling supporters and opponents say they have not yet mapped strategy for the campaign leading up to the referendum. But gambling proponents are almost certain to pour thousands of dollars into the effort and Robinson said that some sort of educational effort will be undertaken to urge people to vote against the issue.
The gambling committee has already raised and spent about $18,000 to collect the signatures to get the measure on the ballot, according to the committee's treasurer, Wesley Long, a Commerce Department economist.
Most of that money was raised from loans of $1,000 or more made to the committee by Long, Firestone, Wietzman and others. These include Brant Coopersmith, the gambling committee's chairman and the Washington area director of the American Jewish Committee; Vivien Cunningham, a staff assistant to City Council Chairman Arrington Dixon, and Richard K. Lyon, a lawyer and, like Firestone, a member of a group trying to bring jai alai to Washington.
Long said that, if the referendum is placed on the ballot, the gambling committee will attempt to raise more money to pay back the loans and to campaign for the approval of gambling.
The ministers, of course, would preach against the measure from the pulpit, but Robinson said he also hopes mass meetings can be held to try to show city residents that gambling will bring more woe than benefits.
Long and others who served on the D.C. gambling study commission predict that gambling will yield about $35 million annually, after prizes are paid to winners and administrative costs are covered.
As one means of trying to attract more support to the D.C. gambling initiative, its proponents wrote the ballot measure so that voters, and prospective lottery players, will know that winners in D.C. numbers and lottery games would get 60 percent of the amount wagered. That is 10 percent more than winners in Maryland's daily numbers game get and 18 percent more than in the weekly games.
In Maryland, players can pick any three-digit number and if the number is produced in a daily drawing, they win $250 for a 50-cent bet. Weekly players buy computer-written numbers in Maryland, a far less popular game than the daily one.
Under the 43-page gambling bill that would take effect if the voters and Congress approve, a five-member Gaming Control Board would be appointed by the mayor with the City Council's cnsent.
That board would have the authority to disburse the gambling profits after prize money and administrative expenses are paid. The bill somewhat vaguely says that the profits should go to three groups: "private, nonprofit organizations providing services to the residents of the District of Columbia; public and private special educational programs; and programs authorized by the District of Columbia for which no funds are available."
Gambling committee chairman Coopersmith said that although the bill does not specify what proportion should go to each category, the study commission suggested that each of the first two groups should get 25 percent each and the last group 50 percent.
The Maryland state treasury collected $131.3 million from its lottery operations last year. D.C. gambling proponents and Maryland lottery officials say they assume some of that money would end up in the D.C. lottery pot if the city has a game.
But some ministers and individuals opposed to gambling in the city dispute whether the extra revenue is worth the extra social ills that they see gambling bringing to the city.
The Rev. John D. Bussey, the 50-year-old pastor of the Bethesda Baptist Church in Northeast Washington, said he gambled until he was 23.
"I got tied up with it -- cards, numbers, craps," he said. "It's contagious. It's something that will make you spend your bread money. The people who want gambling always show the joy of the winner, but never the hundreds of losers.
"We're convinced it doesn't raise enough money to offset those unsung costs -- welfare rolls increasing, crime and loss of jobs," Bussey said.
The lure of the Maryland lottery game, however, seems unabated. While Bass' Liquors Mark Werner tended the counter liquor sales, another clerk punched out lottery tickets, part of the $21,000 in lottery business the store does in an average week.
As D.C. construction worker John Fields, 30, said, "I'm behind like hell [in lottery losings], but it would be a big help if I won."
So he bought six more tickets and they all came up losers.