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Growth in Gaming May Ride on Desert Vote : Elections: The backer of a Palm Springs card club proposal hopes to parlay a victory there into a statewide initiative to legalize full casino gambling.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seven California cities will ask local voters this week whether to allow card clubs, but keep your eye on just one of these contests for an early sign of much bigger stakes statewide.

Passage on Tuesday of a card-club proposal in Palm Springs would set the stage, according to a major backer, for a statewide ballot campaign to legalize full-scale gambling, conceivably at a variety of California locations.

If Measure L wins in the desert resort community, developer Mark Bragg said he will start gathering the more than 690,000 signatures needed to qualify the broader measure for a statewide vote next November. Bragg said he is capable of raising the funds to finance an expensive petition drive.

Voter approval of the state constitutional amendment would overturn California’s longstanding ban on playing against the house at casinos and open the door to the full panoply of Nevada-style gaming--slot machines, blackjack, craps, roulette and other full casino games.

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Bragg said the initiative would allow expanded gambling only at certain “resort destinations.” He said they would be few in number and confined to jurisdictions where card rooms are already authorized by local ordinance.

He said his own community of Palm Springs would qualify, but he is uncertain of other locations.

Bragg has developed resort properties locally and upscale homes on the East Coast and was a partner in a consulting firm with Lyn Nofziger, an official in the Reagan Administration.

Among Bragg’s allies in the Palm Springs campaign for local card club approval is San Francisco 49ers owner Edward J. DeBartolo Jr., who is also a mall developer and racetrack owner in other states. If voters approve, a card club and entertainment center will be opened in unused department store space in DeBartolo’s Desert Fashion Plaza mall in downtown Palm Springs, his associates have said.

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DeBartolo has teamed up with Hollywood Park racetrack and casino to develop card clubs anchored in shopping malls, so far without success.

The prospects of loosening restraints on gaming are attractive to several California card room operators looking for the day, for example, when they can install slot machines and attract customers now patronizing Nevada or slot-equipped Indian casinos. Cities allowing the clubs to operate reap high revenues, often more than all other income sources combined.

Similar motives are believed to be fueling the desire of backers in new jurisdictions to position themselves for an expanded gambling future, but they must act fast.

To authorize setting up or expanding card rooms, city governments are required to beat a Dec. 31 deadline or be subject to a three-year moratorium on the further spread of card clubs in California. The Legislature imposed the moratorium earlier this year.

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Thus the rush to vote now.

Of the seven cities voting Tuesday, five are in the same general area of the Southland--Palm Springs, Coachella, Hesperia, Ontario and Pomona. The two others are San Mateo and Suisun City in Northern California.

All face seemingly steep odds with local hostility from several religious groups, expressions of concern about crime by Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren and opposition from potential competitors such as existing card clubs and Indian gaming interests.

In the cities that have already acted to beat the moratorium deadline, the results have been negative to uncertain.

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Irwindale voters rejected card clubs last month, as did South San Francisco voters in September--and cities statewide voting on the issue recently have overwhelmingly defeated card club proposals.

Since 1992, 20 cities have voted no to the clubs; five have voted yes, according to Harvey Chinn, an anti-gambling lobbyist who keeps track. There are, however, more than 250 card clubs operating in the state, most of them long established, in which players place more than $8 billion in bets annually, according to the state Department of Justice.

Among cities acting on card clubs recently, backers in San Bernardino struggled for weeks trying to overcome opposition to get a measure on the ballot on time. Eventually the City Council voted to hold an election in the spring, after the moratorium deadline has passed.

In Stockton, the City Council voted to rewrite its card club ordinance to allow a large operator--the Hollywood Park racetrack and casino--to open a club in the Central Valley city. Opponents immediately began organizing a referendum drive to repeal the expansion ordinance and predict they will succeed in qualifying for a citywide vote in March.

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In the Palm Springs election Tuesday, not just one but three card rooms are at stake. Also, the election will be in a place where people already gamble.

Unlike the rural settings of most Native American casinos in California, a gambling club on land owned by the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians is situated in downtown Palm Springs. It is just one block from the DeBartolo-owned mall and its proposed card room.

The close-quarters competition has sparked a fierce campaign, with DeBartolo and Bragg on one side pumping in tens of thousands of dollars urging a yes vote and Indian interests pouring in money calling for the measure’s defeat.

In the campaign, the Agua Caliente band has adopted the method, practiced in card club elections elsewhere, of touting the evils of the same forms of gambling they themselves practice.

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“Measure L will turn Palm Springs into a tacky version of Atlantic City,” declares one mailer sponsored by the casino-owning Agua Caliente band.

Another mailer by the Indian group carries a picture of Lungren--who is waging a prolonged battle against Indian casinos by declaring that their slot machines violate state law. But in the ad, Lungren is quoted only as saying he lacks sufficient regulation to police the card club industry.

“It’s easy to see why . . . Lungren opposes the expansion of card rooms in California,” says the mailer by the Agua Caliente band, which offers customers about 180 slot machines to play at its downtown club.

Bragg, who is the developer of two of the three proposed card room sites in Palm Springs, said he will await Tuesday’s outcome before announcing further plans for a statewide initiative campaign.

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DeBartolo lost out in an earlier attempt to combine mall shopping with gaming. He had planned to develop a mall around a card club if the vote had gone his way in South San Francisco in September.

DeBartolo has similar aims depending on the outcome Tuesday both in Palm Springs and in Pomona, which is voting for the second time on whether to allow a card club to open. In April, voters there turned down a card club proposal by just over 200 votes.

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Voting on Card Clubs

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Here is when various California cities, including several in the Southland, will vote in the next two months on whether to authorize card clubs. The cities of South San Francisco and Irwindale defeated measures earlier this fall.

* Tuesday: Palm Springs, Coachella, Hesperia, Pomona, Ontario, San Mateo and Suisun City in Solano County.

* Nov. 21: Hawaiian Gardens.

* Dec. 12: Azusa, Colton, Perris, and Pacifica in San Mateo County.

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* Dec. 19: Lynwood.


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