COLUMN ONE : 'Riverboat Rambo' Vs. Casino Titans : Illinois pastor Tom Grey travels the nation in a beat-up Toyota, rallying citizens who want to keep gaming out of their towns.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The wandering clergyman from Illinois is drafting his battle plan. He's got a map of California spread out before him and a red pen in his hand. He is plotting his course, although he has no clue where he is and little idea where he is going.

Tom Grey is undaunted. They don't call him Riverboat Rambo for nothing.

Grey searches for places whose names he cannot pronounce. Where's Irvington? he wants to know, looking for Irwindale. What about Azuma? He means Azusa. Soon, the map is a connect-the-dots chart linking 14 cities--including this famed desert resort--that appear to have nothing in common.

Nothing, that is, except all have ballot initiatives that propose gambling. And most can expect a visit from Grey, a balding renegade in an off-the-rack khaki suit who has spent three years rambling across America on a crusade to stop the expansion of legalized gambling. His success has caught the nation's fastest-growing industry, the betting business, quite off guard.

As executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling (a high-falutin' name for an organization that, at best, can be called loose-knit), Grey has no computer, no cellular phone, no beeper, not even an office--unless you count his car, a 1993 blue Toyota Tercel with strips of duct tape where Sophie, the family dog, chewed a hole through the interior.

He keeps a list of other people's fax numbers in a little black book. When someone asks to send him a fax, he gives out the number of whomever he intends to visit next. In Illinois last week, he stopped in three cities to get faxes.

Could this really be the man a Louisiana consultant for the gambling industry branded "our most dangerous man in America?"

Indeed he is. Over the past eight years, as state and local governments have looked to casinos and riverboats to cure their economic woes, legalized gambling has exploded. Now, this rapid--some say, unfettered--growth is emerging as a national public policy issue, both in Congress and the presidential campaign. While proponents say gambling provides jobs and tax revenue, critics say casinos actually hurt local economies and destroy families by promoting addiction.

Grey the Crusader

The chief spokesman for the scattered group that industry insiders caustically call "the antis" is Grey, 55, who has demonstrated a remarkable knack for building grass-roots networks. The local coalitions he assembles sometimes include odd bedfellows, linking church ladies with good government activists and racetrack owners who believe casinos will hurt their business.

In West Virginia, where the Legislature was contemplating a bill to allow riverboats, Grey organized 25 town meetings to push for a state referendum. The bill was withdrawn. In Pennsylvania, where Grey helped gather 50,000 signatures for a ballot initiative, a similar bill met with a similar fate. In his home state, Grey has organized 60 local groups and helped draft 36 anti-gambling ballot proposals in three years--and there has been no new riverboat legislation since he started.

He is a study in contradictions: a Methodist minister with a Dartmouth degree who was also an infantry commander in Vietnam. A quarter-century later, he fancies himself a soldier once more, dropping onto foreign soil and staking out his turf. A critic in Missouri once grumbled that Grey "treats this crucial matter of public policy as if it was the last siege of Hamburger Hill."

Which is precisely what he was doing on a balmy October Sunday in Palm Springs, where a small coterie of activists are relying on Grey to help defeat a plan to put a card room in an empty I. Magnin department store. Backers of the initiative make the usual arguments of economic revitalization for a city that sorely needs it.

This is an argument that Grey does not buy, citing studies, most recently a book by Massachusetts economist Robert Goodman, who argues that gambling "cannibalizes local economies" by shifting dollars away from restaurants and existing businesses toward casinos. This, he contends, is what will happen in Palm Springs, although for the moment, his mind is on a larger landscape.

"The three battlegrounds for us are Maryland, Chicago and California," he says excitedly, scribbling with the red pen. "They need Maryland to crack the mid-Atlantic states. We cut 'em down in West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania and we've held Maryland, but they're coming back at us again. . . .

"They need Chicago to open up and penetrate a major urban city. If they get Chicago, Detroit's gonna go. . . . And the last is California. You have 22% of the population, do you know that? And they're after New York in '97. . . . "

The "they" in Grey's lexicon are companies such as Circus Circus, ITT-Sheraton, Harrah's and Mirage Resorts, biggies in the $40-billion-a-year gambling business. Grey has fought these companies and a host of smaller concerns in their efforts to expand gambling in 20 states. He has lost, he says, in only two.

One might wonder just how a preacher got into this fracas. The answer is this: In 1992, a riverboat came to Grey's hometown, and it made him mad.

Galena, Ill., population 3,800, is a lovingly restored Civil War-era village (Gen. Ulysses S. Grant once lived there) across the Mississippi River from Dubuque, Iowa. The economy thrives on tourists, drawn to its cozy bed-and-breakfasts and antique stores scented with potpourri. The town is populated by artists and intellectuals, who aren't likely to frequent casinos.

So four years ago, when word leaked out that Illinois gaming authorities were planning to license the riverboat, Galena locals pushed for a county ballot referendum. Grey had been troubled by gambling since his Army days, when he watched slot machines in the officers' clubs eat up his buddies' earnings, and he knew that the Methodist statement of social principles comes out strongly against wagering. So he joined the battle. It didn't take long for him to be elected the leader.

That year, 81% of Galena citizens voted against the riverboat. But the referendum was only advisory, and officials ignored it. Today, the Silver Eagle cruises the Mississippi just outside of Galena--testimony, Grey believes, to the hubris of government.

Hot Property

Though his was only a moral victory, word soon spread in Illinois that if you wanted to defeat gambling, Grey was the man to get. So besieged was he by requests for help that he took an unpaid leave from his pastor's job to travel the state--then, the nation.

Along the way, he picked up compatriots and enlisted them into his national coalition, which meets in Orlando, Fla., for its annual conference Friday. Attendance, Grey expects, will be 200, though there are 1,850 on the mailing list.

For a long time, nobody noticed Grey. Now, he's a hot property. Phil Donahue begged him to be a guest; last week, he flew to New York for a taping. Tom Snyder and the CBS Weekend News want interviews. Newspapers across the land want quotes.

All this in the past month, ever since a proposal surfaced in Congress for a national commission to study the economic and social effects of gambling. Backers of the study, including Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), share Grey's view that the proliferation of casinos, riverboats, video poker and other venues has brought harmful side effects, most notably addiction, upon those who can least afford it.

At the same time, gambling has become a pressing issue in Republican presidential politics, pitting candidates who are generally pro-business against those who raise questions of family values.

All of which makes Grey one very happy, albeit cautious, warrior.

"We've surprised a superior force," he says, looking up from the map. "The question is, 'Can we raise a real army?' "

If Grey is going to win, he will need one.

Over the past seven years, as state and local governments have rushed to cash in on Americans' love affair with luck, 19 states have joined Nevada and New Jersey in legalizing riverboats and casinos. Ten states have legalized video poker games and slot machines.

California has not jumped into the casino craze; an amendment to the state Constitution prohibits it. But even without the most populous state, there are more than 500 casinos in America, more than double the number five years ago.

The industry estimates there were 125 million visits to casinos last year.

All this has meant jobs--1 million Americans are employed by gambling companies--and a windfall for cash-strapped states and municipalities, which have come to depend on gambling taxes to finance public education and other services. Last year, the betting business pumped $1.4 billion into state and municipal coffers. Yet there is evidence that politicians may be more gung-ho on gambling than the citizens they represent. A recent survey conducted by Casino Journal, a trade magazine, found that 51.1% of Americans favor legalized casino gambling, while 40% oppose it.

"There are a lot of deep objections to gambling," says Florida political consultant Nancy Todd, who represents gaming companies, "that go way back to when Grandpa lost the milk money."

Grey is hoping to translate those objections into public policy, but he knows it won't be easy. In Illinois alone, he notes, politicians last year received $1.2 million in contributions from gaming companies--more than from any other special interest group.

If ever there were evidence of the industry's might, it was on display last week in Las Vegas, where 20,000 people converged for the World Gaming Congress & Expo. The convention center was a carnival of bells and blinking lights and whiz-bang ways to lose money. But there also was a grave message for attendees.

It came from Frank Fahrenkopf, a silver-haired Washington lawyer in a double-breasted suit who once served as chairman of the Republican National Committee. In his current incarnation, the Nevada native heads the American Gaming Assn., or AGA, a 4-month-old lobbying group.

"You have crusaders who see the gaming entertainment industry as inherently evil," Fahrenkopf declared. "These people, and make no mistake about it, have but one agenda--the complete abolition of the gaming industry. I'm here this morning to raise this warning: Our industry is under attack."

Deflecting Criticism

Top priority, Fahrenkopf told his audience, must be to defeat the "rather innocuous-sounding bill" in Congress calling for a national study, which he describes as an intrusion on states' rights that is hardly innocuous. About this, he is correct. Grey makes no bones about his plans for the study: If Congress approves it (it is unclear what its chances are), his next tactic will be to ask for a moratorium on gambling.

Fahrenkopf, however, has tactics of his own.

To deflect criticism that casinos foster gambling addiction, he announced that the AGA will form a foundation to study problem gambling. And while Grey trots out studies by his favorite academic, economist Goodman, Fahrenkopf is sketching out plans for his group to combat Goodman's "garbage numbers" with studies of its own.

Upon hearing this, Grey chuckles. "Well," he says nonchalantly, "at least we've got their attention."

Although the United Methodist Church donated $30,000 to Grey's coalition last year, there is no budget for his travels, so he tries to go cheap. He relishes saving money the same way he relishes a good argument--he'll drop 30 pennies in a 40-cent tollbooth just to see if he can trick the machine into saving him a dime. "I hate toll roads," he says. "They built 'em on the assumption they would become free. They never become free. They only get more expensive."

He rarely pays for meals or stays in hotels, living instead on "good-will offerings." In some cities, he gets the keys to people's houses. Some places, he mows the lawn.

Life on the road with Grey is an exercise in exhaustion. He has logged 65,000 miles on the Tercel in two years (he retired his red Honda at 150,000 miles)--a staggering feat given that a third of his trips involve flying.

The car speaks volumes about the man. The trunk carries Grey's survival kit: Army rations--potatoes au gratin, corned beef hash; a plastic bag stocked with blue and red CasiNO buttons; a box jammed with files whose labels only Grey can decipher, labels such as "No Respect" and "In Your Face."

Mostly, the files contain newspaper clippings. Grey refers to them constantly. "I have an example out in the car," he'll say. "I'll show you." And then he does.

Pockmarked Maps

Also there is Grey's stash of aluminum cans, which he drives across the Iowa line to redeem for 5 cents apiece. And there is one item Grey never leaves home without--a map of America, affixed to a bulletin board and pockmarked with pushpins to identify all the states in which he has won gambling battles. Tom Grey loves maps.

It is dusk on the day after Grey's romp through Palm Springs. He has persuaded a reporter to cart him from the desert to Irwindale, where he is to hook up with the son of Lou Sheldon, the founder of Orange County's ultraconservative Traditional Values Coalition, in a park behind City Hall. The occasion is the weekly potluck dinner of a local anti-gambling group. The trouble is, Grey has never met any of the people he is looking for.

He is here after volunteering to help Sheldon's group build a statewide coalition against gambling. What he really wants to do is put Sheldon together with liberal Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), but so far that hasn't worked out. The irony of the pairing is not lost on Grey, who is stung by criticism that he is a right-winger and a moralist.

"If I could get Hayden and Sheldon together," Grey says, almost wistfully, "then I might really have something."

At the park, the minister spots a dozen or so people sitting around the picnic tables. He walks up, introduces himself, pulls out his trusty map and launches into his standard spiel, opening with the story of "my little town of Galena."

"They are predators and they are trying to pick off places," he concludes. "Now the good news is, we are beating them, and we are beating them with people just like you and me, common people."

He finishes to a round of applause and thank yous. "God sent you here to help us," one woman says. Then he hustles back to the car to get some CasiNO buttons for the crowd.

It has been said of Grey that he never met a metaphor he didn't like. Gambling companies are "predators." His current campaign is "my fall offensive."

It might also be said that Tom Grey is a realist. He has no vision of shutting down Vegas; he would be happy just to stop its expansion. But he is running out of energy, and he is running out of time. He has promised his wife, Carolyn, that he will be off the road by the end of next year, and he is hoping that by Election Day, 1996, public consciousness about gambling's seemingly unchecked growth will have been raised to such a degree that others might pick up where he leaves off.

He is not sure what he will do then. He has discovered that the activist life suits him, and he senses a yearning in America for people to feel more connected with their government. He would like somehow to tap into that. Maybe, he says, he can find another cause.

Maybe he'll take on toll roads.

* IRWINDALE CASINO VOTE: Election is today on first card club in San Gabriel Valley. B3

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