When West Hollywood City Council candidate Stephen Michael decided to propose that the city set up a legalized gambling zone for card clubs, he figured that the idea might spark a reaction.
It did. The night that Michael unveiled his proposal during a candidates forum more than a week ago, his audience of gay and West Hollywood political leaders roared with laughter.
But Michael’s suggestion has accomplished in one stroke what gambling supporters have thus far been unable to do--place the issue on West Hollywood’s public agenda.
For more than two years, lobbyists representing several different pro-gambling groups have approached city officials, council members and political candidates, vainly hoping that the idea might catch fire. Suddenly, in a city where illegal casinos once flourished on the Sunset Strip during the 1930s, people are again talking about gambling.
Unfortunately for Michael and the few businessmen who support the idea, the talk is decidedly negative. “It’s the most ludicrous thing I’ve heard this year,” scoffed Councilman John Heilman.
Heilman and his fellow council members are against it. So are city officials. So are Abbe Land and Gene La Pietra--Michael’s opponents in the city’s special City Council election. So are community activists in neighborhoods that would be affected by the poker club proposals.
Their concerns are myriad, ranging from worries about an influx of organized crime figures and street thugs, to fears that parlors no longer provide the sizable city revenues they once did. There are concerns, too, that West Hollywood’s considerable parking and traffic congestion would only worsen.
“All in all, I think we’d be looking at a nightmare,” said Richard Settle, a photographer and officer of the West Hollywood Community Alliance, a group representing businesses on the city’s east side--the community which would be most affected by Michael’s proposal.
In his speech before the gay-oriented Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles, Michael, a wholesale furniture dealer and registered Republican, suggested the establishment of a card club zone on West Hollywood’s east side.
Need for Revenue Cited
Michael insists that such a zone could not only help revitalize the east side, which has lost businesses in recent years, but could also provide healthy revenues for the city, which is considering the construction of a new city hall and several major parking garages.
“I’d like to see many small clubs,” he said. “Obviously, we would have new community pressures to deal with, but the clubs could bring in more than enough money to deal with them.”
A candidate in the city’s last council election in April, Michael came in ninth in a field of 10 candidates, with 1.5% of the total vote. Considered little more than a hindrance by Land and La Pietra, who have so far won most of the major political endorsements, Michael has had to depend on controversial public stances to attract attention.
“I realize some of my stands are considered by most political operatives to be tantamount to suicide,” said Michael, who has also called for a rent control law that is fairer to landlords and for council elections based on political districts (positions that have been unpopular with city voters). “But these people have a fear of the unknown. I don’t mind ruffling some feathers,” he said.
Michael, by his own admission, is a recent convert to the idea of legalized gambling. According to his campaign manager, Paul Fredericks, Michael began to consider the idea less than two weeks ago, after learning from a political intermediary that several Sunset Strip rock club owners would be willing to contribute up to $10,000 to any candidate who supported card clubs in West Hollywood.
After warming to the idea, Michael decided to support the idea of card clubs, but only in a limited zone on the city’s east end. “A number of my neighborhood supporters told me they couldn’t back me if I supported card clubs throughout the city,” he said.
Bill Gazzarri, a cigar-puffing rock promoter who owns the Gazzarri’s On-the-Strip nightclub, a haunt for heavy metal rock fans, prefers his own card club proposal, which would allow West Hollywood restaurants and bars to open a limited number of card tables. “That way, you wouldn’t have to worry about the expense and the temptation for graft you might get if you had to build big casinos,” he said.
Backed by several other Sunset Strip club owners, Gazzarri has been pitching the idea of legalized gambling to city officials for more than six months. While Gazzarri denies Michael’s contention that he and other club owners on the Strip were willing to funnel campaign contributions to a pro-gambling candidate, he said he finds Michael’s idea “interesting” and hinted that he might support Michael’s candidacy.
“It’s not exactly what I had in mind, but it’s a start,” Gazzarri said.
Gazzarri’s own plan would allow the city to issue poker licenses to any city business. Restrictions would be placed on the number of card tables that establishments could rent to players and on the amounts that could be bet during each game.
‘A Little Extra Money’
“If these places have only four or five tables and the bets are kept low, no one is going to be bringing in so much money that he’s depending entirely on poker,” Gazzarri said. “It would bring in a little extra money for the restaurant and bar owners and it would liven up this city a little.”
But the card club proposals still meet with strong skepticism in West Hollywood. The latest reactions are as vehement as they were two years ago, when gambling interests first tried to stir up interest.
Gambling is not new to West Hollywood. According to longtime residents and law enforcement accounts, at least two illegal casinos--equipped with roulette wheels and card tables--flourished on the Sunset Strip in the 1930s. The casinos succumbed to police raids and eventually to the competition of the larger legal casinos built in Las Vegas in the late 1940s.
During West Hollywood’s incorporation election in the fall of 1984, several candidates said they were approached by go-betweens for gambling interests. Ron Stone, who led West Hollywood’s cityhood effort, said that twice during that campaign he was asked if he would support card clubs in return for campaign contributions.
“The first proposal came from a man who said he managed one of the gambling parlors in southeast L.A.,” Stone said. “I told him I just couldn’t see it, that I didn’t think the city would support it and that I didn’t think it would be good for the city.”
Since then, council members have received occasional pitches on the gambling issue.
“We’re all pretty dead set against the idea,” said Councilman Alan Viterbi. “I don’t think it’s a realistic possibility here. I think most voters would have the mental image of organized crime and the fear of what might happen in their neighborhoods.”
Both Michael and Gazzarri downplay the fears of an invasion of mobsters. But, as Viterbi guesses, it appears to be a primary worry among neighborhood activists.
“You wouldn’t be drawing the carriage trade, that’s for sure,” said Virginia Rennick, a member of the Hilldale Neighborhood Watch who owns commercial property on Sunset Boulevard and lives just north of the Strip. “I think a lot of us worry that this area would be invaded by the criminal element.”
Although Capt. James Cook, commander of the county Sheriff’s Department’s West Hollywood station, declined to comment on the proposals, he and City Manager Paul Brotzman met with Gazzarri last year on his proposal. Both men, Brotzman said, raised the issue of organized crime.
Several council members and city officials have pointed to corruption charges leveled against several public officials in the cities of Bell and Commerce as one example of the pernicious influence of card clubs.
And West Hollywood Director of Human Services Lloyd Long, who is also a planning commissioner in Commerce, raised questions about the use of card clubs as a primary source of city revenues.
“The major reason most of the Southeast communities went for card clubs was financial,” Long said. “After Proposition 13, there were real fears that their revenues would dry up. But West Hollywood is a financially healthy community that doesn’t have the kinds of budget constraints that those cities had.”
(West Hollywood’s projected budget for next year would leave the treasury with at least a $700,000 surplus, officials say.)
And Long suggested that existing card clubs have found themselves increasingly dependent on a limited, middle-aged clientele.
“My impression is that there are only a finite number of people who are drawn to the card clubs,” he said. “It would seem to me that if West Hollywood card clubs were to do well, they’d have to find a new clientele.”
Fred Huebscher, a sales representative who is active in Democratic Party politics and supports the card club proposals, insists that the proximity of West Hollywood to affluent Westside communities, such as Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, and to the San Fernando Valley, would indeed lure a new clientele.
“West Hollywood is a lot glitzier than towns like Bell and Gardena,” he said. “It is positioned perfectly to draw its own clientele.”
But even if that were the case, said most West Hollywood officials and activists interviewed last week, card clubs would still not be a welcome addition to city.
“Absolutely no way,” said Councilwoman Helen Albert. “We don’t need that kind of money and we don’t need that kind of trouble.”