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Casino Initiative Proposal Leaves Officials Baffled

TIMES STAFF WRITER

From a mailbox a mile from Disneyland last December, a woman calling herself Juanita Long mailed a $200 check to the state attorney general’s office, along with a proposed ballot initiative that would allow racetracks in five California cities to legally operate Las Vegas-style gambling casinos.

Having lobbed that grenade at the anti-gaming forces that have fought to keep casino gambling from the Golden State, Long promptly disappeared without leaving a trace.

The Anaheim motel she used as her address on her printed checks says it has no record she ever stayed there. The telephone number she gave in filing the initiative has been disconnected. The return address was a mail drop in Fullerton. And the apartment she claimed to live in when she registered to vote under a different name, Juanita Embry, is occupied by someone else who says she never lived there.

The unexpected and seemingly shoestring initiative has left city officials from Cypress to San Mateo, along with an unlikely assortment of political operatives and state law enforcement officials, all scurrying to answer the same question: “Who is Juanita Long?”

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“Everyone wants to know who is behind this. This thing has the potential to do major damage to our cities,” said Kevin Justen, senior management analyst for the city of Cypress, whose council will meet Monday to discuss the initiative and the possibility of organizing other cities to fight the measure.

“Is it someone from the casino industry floating this? Who is it? Everyone is asking the same thing.”

But inquiries into the identity of Long and the genesis of the Casino Gambling Initiative Constitutional Amendment she submitted have raised more questions so far than they answer.

Officials at the five cities that would be affected by the initiative say casino gambling would increase crime in their communities. They not only deny a connection with the initiative, but are moving to oppose it. The racetracks that would seem likely supporters of the plan have publicly denied responsibility for the initiative.

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Gaming industry leaders who have long favored casino gambling in California say they are not behind the initiative. State records show that neither they nor the racetracks have raised money to support it.

And now, in the wake of a Times inquiry into who is backing the proposed initiative, the state attorney general’s office has joined the hunt, a spokesman for the office said Friday.

Mark Bragg, a Palm Springs resort owner who proposed a similar initiative before the 1996 elections but distances himself from this one, says, “I think they will have difficulty finding Juanita.”

There is no record that anyone named either Long or Embry ever lived at the address she listed with the Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters.

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“Juanita? Juanita? No, no one by that name lives here,” said the woman who answered the door at the second floor apartment at 2342 Cedar Ave. in Long Beach, where Long swore she was living on the voter registration affidavit she filed in December. “My name’s Regina, and I’ve lived here for seven years. Nope, never heard of her.”

Officials at the attorney general’s office say they are investigating whether Long falsified her address when she registered to vote. To do so is a felony punishable by a fine and four years in jail.

The five cities specified in the initiative are not waiting for answers to the whodunit to voice their opposition to Long’s proposal.

If passed, the initiative would amend the state Constitution to permit casino gambling at Los Alamitos Race Course in Cypress, Santa Anita Race Course in Arcadia, Hollywood Park in Inglewood, Bay Meadows Race Course in San Mateo and Golden Gate Fields in Albany.

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On Monday, the San Mateo City Council voted unanimously to oppose the initiative. In Albany, the city manager this week sent a copy of the initiative language to council members. Inglewood city staff members say they are reviewing their options on how their council could oppose the initiative. And in Arcadia, City Manager William Kelly said he may place a resolution opposing the initiative on the Feb. 18 City Council agenda.

Currently, the California Constitution bans casino gambling. But state law does allow the establishment of card clubs with local voter approval.

Unlike card clubs, which many cities have allowed as a way to increase tax revenue, casinos operating under Long’s proposed initiative would pay no money to city governments.

The initiative would earmark 5% of net casino revenue to the state Department of Education, and 1% to counties.

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That, according to city officials in Cypress and other municipalities, could saddle local governments with the expense of added police costs and crime associated with casino gambling without the benefits of added revenue.

“It’s like a big black hole, someone out there is trying to get a law passed that would change the face of our city, and we don’t have the slightest idea who it is,” Kelly said.

“My wife has called around, no one can find these people. My contacts with the racetrack here--they don’t know anything about this person, whose behind it, whose funding it. I just can’t believe this thing. It has a mind of its own.”

In San Mateo, still reeling from a heated campaign two years ago to establish a card room at Bay Meadows Race Course--a campaign that died when 61% of the city’s voters cast ballots against the proposal--the casino initiative has struck a sensitive chord.

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The initiative “would allow the casino to locate in the racetrack without city approval. That’s not what we’re about,” San Mateo City Manager Arne Croce said. “To give a thumbs up on a major development like a casino like that is just unacceptable for any city, especially a city like San Mateo. Our voters have already spoken about gambling.”

To get the initiative on the June 2, 1998 statewide ballot, backers need to gather 693,230 signatures of registered voters by May 16. And campaign consultants and academics who follow the initiative process around the state say there are no indications that the initiative’s backers have gathered a single signature.

“I’ve been in this business for over a decade, and if someone was circulating petitions, I’d know it,” said Bill Arno, president of Arno Professional Consulting in Sacramento. “Ever since it surfaced, people have been asking what this is, and where’s it from. But this person doesn’t want to be found.”

Arno and other campaign consultants said their inquiries about Long led them to believe she is a professional petition circulator who wrote the initiative hoping to get financial backing for it.

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“We’re not worried. Anybody who’s involved with the industry knows it’s just not done that way. It’s putting the cart before the horse to go out and write an initiative and then look for money to back it,” said Fred Kimball, president of Kimball Petition Management in Agoura Hills. “We were all kind of surprised when it turned up, but it’s not going anywhere.”

Among gambling interests in California, speculation is that Long may be the wife of an Arkansas political operative they recall only as a Mr. Embry.

A Juanita Long in Little Rock did not answer phone messages left at her home Friday.

While local and state government officials follow the mystery, others are just as happy to move on.

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The president of the Los Angeles Turf Club, which owns Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia, remembers getting a call several months ago from someone asking if he wanted to kick in $150,000 to fund a signature drive and get the initiative on the ballot.

“We just had no interest, and so I told him that. It would have little or no chance of passage,” said the racetrack’s owner, Cliff Goodrich. “I don’t remember the fellow’s name, he never called back. Must have gone back to wherever he came from.”

Also contributing to this report was Times correspondent Bill Billiter.


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