When telephone solicitors for the D.C. Committee on Legalized Gambling seek support for next Tuesday's city gambling referendum, they rarely mention the word "gambling" or the measure's two most controversial proposals, legalization of pari-mutuel wagering on jai alai and dog racing.
Instead, the callers, who have reached 22,000 voters in the last two weeks, identify themselves as being with the "D.C. Committee," according to a prepared text they use, and leave the voters with the impression that they will be deciding only whether to approve a city-run lottery.
Gambling proponents said yesterday they do not think the callers are deceptive in omitting mention of jai alai and dog racing. But Janet Manning, a spokeswoman for the antigambling forces, said "the lack of information is what the proponents are counting on to get this passed."
Jerry Cooper, a retired Census Bureau official who is vice chairman of the gambling committee, said callers are instructed to end any calls with people who question them about jai alai or dog racing.
Cooper and Martin Firestone, a Washington lawyer and one of the authors of the gambling proposal, said the emphasis on the possible creation of the lottery and daily numbers game like that in Maryland was a simple political tactic. It is being used to emphasize what gambling supporters and opponents alike regard as the least controversial items in the gambling proposal.
"We're not trying to educate people about gambling," said Cooper. "We're trying to get gambling legalized in the District of Columbia. We don't care whether they know anything about jai alai or dog racing."
Cooper denied that the callers do not fully identify themselves as being with the D.C. Community on Legalized Gambling, but one of the callers told a reporter that only the words "D.C. Committee" are used. Cooper refused to allow reporters to listen to the callers.
Said Firestone: "A lot of people are unfamiliar with jai alai. Why waste the time to explain it? Just like in any political campaign, you lead with your strength."
Gambling opponents, led by a group of Baptist ministers, have focused much of their opposition to passage of Tuesday's referendum on the controversy surrounding jai alai, a fast-paced Spanish court game that is the subject of continuing game-fixing investigation in Connecticut and Florida.
Meanwhile, animal welfare groups here have taken aim at the proposed legalization of dog racing because of some trainers' use of live lures -- rabbits, kittens and piglets to teach greyhound dogs to be racers.
The referendum is an all-or-nothing proposition, that in addition to legalizing dog racing, jai alai, lottery and daily numbers games, also would sanction bingo, raffles and social betting where no profit is reaped by an organizer. Voters cannot pick and choose which types of gambling they might favor.
A group of 18 to 20 workers hired by the progambling group have been calling D.C. voters in 12 hours a day for the past two weeks seeking support for the passage of the referendum.
The callers tell voters: "We'd like to start a lottery in D.C. because of the District's terrible financial problems. There's just not enough money for the services we need. Maryland's lottery gets over $30 million from District residents. They're even thinking about cutting taxes. Fortunately we have a chance to do something about our problem. On May 6, Washington residents will have a chance to vote yes on the lottery and the D.C. government could really use the money."
If those called say they support gambling, the callers urge them to vote, but if they are undecided, the caller says, "I hope you'll consider how important the revenue will be to improving our police and welfare services." Calls with those opposed are ended quickly.
Under the proposed city gambling law, there is no guarantee that any specific D.C. program, other than special education, would receive any of the projected $35 million in annual gambling revenue.
One provision of the law says that the gambling revenue would be split three ways, with authorized but unfunded D.C. programs getting a share, as well as private and public special education programs and nonprofit groups performing services for city residents.
A new and powerful five-member Gaming Control Board would direct which groups get the money, with the approval of the mayor and advice and consent of the City Council.
Judy Nadler, who is overseeing the phone bank operation, said the callers are "encouraged not to get into any debate (with the voters they contact) because often they (the callers) don't know the answers" to questions. People with questions about the referendum are told to call Nadler or another gambling supporter, she said.
"It's not intended to be deceptive," she said. "It's intended to be expedient. It's like shorthand."
Gambling opponents are also operating a telephone bank, one that is staffed with one to four volunteers. Manning estimated that they have probably only called 3,000 to 4,000 of the city's 253,628 registered voters she said they have tried to stress that more than just legalization of a lottery is at stake in the referendum.