Opponents of the measure to legalize city-run lottery and daily numbers games are waging a last-ditch legal battle to keep the issue off the Nov. 4 ballot, while gambling supporters are starting a low-key effort to convince voters that the lottery revenue is needed to help cash-pinched city government.
The courtroom fight centers on complicated legal issues, such as the constitutionality of the procedure for challenging signatures of registered voters on petitions to place the measure on the ballot.
The campaign in the streets centers more on the gambling issue itself. The central question there is whether a legal daily lottery and numbers are really a major revenue source waiting to be tapped, as proponents claim, or whether such city-sponsored gambling will actually lead to the total destruction of family life and moral fabric, as some antigambling ministers contend.
U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell says he will be deciding this week whether the gambling supporters met all the legal requirements in collecting signatures to get the referendum on the ballot. But the pro-gambling forces, confident of winning the court suit, are already concentrating their time, and money, on the unpredictable fight for votes in a city stepped in church tradition and that already rejected one gambling proposal last May by a 3-to-2 margin.
This latest proposal -- to legalize lottery and numbers games, and bingo and raffles for charitable purposes -- is a substantially modified version of the initiative voters rejected in May. Gone are the controversial provisions to legalize jai lai and dog racing. Gone is the ill-conceived gambling commission that some opponents contended would have acted as a virtual welcoming committee for the organized gangsters that legal gambling sometimes brings.
"The bill has been tailored to what the people said they wanted," said Brant Coopersmith, head of the D.C. Committee to Legalize Gambling. "We'v e gotten rid of all the objectionable stuff."
Even the gambling opponents concede that this modified initiative has a better chance of passing than the May proposal, which is why the anti-gambling forces have gone to federal court to try to block the measure from ever reaching the ballot. The gambling opponents are arguing that the 10 days allowed by the city's Board of Elections and Ethics for petition challenges is not sufficient time to thoroughly research the validity of the 24,100 signatures collected by pro-gambling forces.
An ad hoc citizens committee and the four Baptist ministers fighting the gambling measure say they oppose it primarily on moral grounds, but that the court challenge to the petition signatures may be the only way to stop gambling from becoming legal if the voters get to decide for themselves next month.
The Rev. Andrew Fowler, head of the Committee of 100 Ministers and one of the most outspoken critics of legalized gambling, said the measure might win voter approval in November only because "the public is being deceived" by the less objectionable, modified version.
"It will have a better chance unless somebody tells [the people] the truth," Fowler said. "If they can get this one, they'll go back and get jai lai [and] dog racing. If they get this, they can get anything they want.
"This whole thing is against the Negro race," Fowler said. "The aim of legalized gambling is to keep the Negroes poor."
Bishop Smallwood E. Williams, another longtime gambling critic whose opposition helped defeat the May 6 initiative, now rates this one "a toss up, because of the way they've modified it."
But the pro-gambling forces are still taking nothing for granted this time around, and they have planned their campaign to convince voters that this referendum is different, and less objectionable, than the defeated May 6 bill. r
The Committee to Legalize Gambling plans to spend an overall total of $25,000 to push the gambling bill, although $15,000 of that has been spent already to collect signatures of registered voters to get the measure on the ballot, according to campaign coordinator Ron Concome, a veteran political activist from three of former Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaigns. The money -- coming largely from contributions from two lottery equipment companies, Scientific Games of Atlanta and General Instruments of New York -- will go primarily into leaflets and some media advertisements.
The 25,000 budget is less than a quarter of the amount pro-gambling forces spent on the May referendum, when Washington supporters of legalizing jai lai poured thousands of dollars into the campaign. The ministers, badly outspent in the earlier referendum campaign, say that once again they have way less money than the gambling supporters.
Both sides say they plan to take their case to voters at numerous community forums scheduled before election day.
Concome said the committee plans to campaign heavily on election day and to pass out leaflets at each of the city's precincts during the peak voting hours. pConcome said the committee is also trying to build up a coalition of supporters from the city's public employee unions, by emphasizing its statistic showing that a city-run lottery and numbers could yield $35 million a year for the cash-strapped District government.
"Union help would seem the most logical at this point," Concome said, pointing out that city unions have lately been chafing under Mayor Marion Barry's planned 5 percent pay increase, far less than the rate of inflation but all Barry said the city can afford.
Concome said the greatest task for the pro-gambling forces now is to convince voters -- particularly those in Ward 3, West of Rock Creek Park, who overwhelmingly rejected the May initiative -- that this proposal is substantially different than the last gambling bill.
The argument gambling proponents use most frequently is that District residents spend millions each year buying daily lottery tickets in n neighboring Maryland, with its state-run lottery. Also, the proposed initiative legalizes bingo games and raffles put on by nonprofit organizations like churches. Such affairs are currently illegal, although that law is rarely enforced.
The gambling proponents also claim that the "illegal lottery" -- the street numbers game popular in the District -- will be drastically curtailed by a city-run lottery. That claim, however, is disputed by D.C. police officers familiar with gambling, who said that a legal, city-run lottery would only give gamblers a new outlet while not curtailing illegal betting.
Also, Concome said, nothing in the bill forces people to buy lottery tickets, and citizens ought to be free to choose whether they gamble.
"I just resent this whole 'moral majority' type of attitude that's so pervasive," Concome said.
Fowler, speaking for gambling opponents, said the legal lottery in Maryland is fine, as long as it stays in Maryland. "More people would gamble if it were right here in town," Fowler said. "Women would leave their food uncooked to go gambling. This would be a city of crime and corruption and racketeering if we let it come in here."