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Casino combat

Culture | Gambling opponent Tom Grey fields a small coalition that's slowing the spread of big-time gaming

Issue: "Ideal Idol," June 2, 2007

He may be past retirement age, but veteran gambling opponent Tom Grey plans to keep on fighting. At 66, Grey is both a Vietnam veteran and an experienced combatant against legal gambling.

The executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, on an annual budget of not much more than $100,000, has helped grass-roots groups repeatedly defeat well-financed gambling initiatives.

"Retirement is a non-starter when you are in a good fight, for the future of your children and grandchildren," Grey told WORLD.

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His coalition has stood up to an industry with deep pockets, prompting Chicago Tribune columnist Paul Galloway to call him "Prophet of the Year" for warning against gambling. The group has succeeded by bringing evangelical and fundamentalist church leaders together with mainline churches to stop gambling proposals. And, he believes, the spread of legal gambling may be reaching its peak: Proposals to expand gambling failed in three states last fall-Ohio, Nebraska, and Rhode Island.

"There's no popular groundswell for more gambling," Grey said.

Yet once legal gambling gets a foot in the door, it is harder for opponents to contain its natural tendency to expand. When one kind of gambling, such as horse racing, gets in financial trouble, the industry will call for more kinds of other gambling to subsidize the failing industry. "Show me where gambling has come, and they've been able to contain it," Grey said.

Stories of the tragic personal and social impact of gambling addiction can help the opposition. Nashua County, Fla., for example, saw its bond ratings drop after a county employee stole $1 million for a gambling habit and then committed suicide. More legal gambling leads to more addiction. Estimating the exact cost of addiction is tricky, but in Ohio, Grey contends, the proposed expansion would have cost the state more than $1 billion, with 100,000 more addicts.

Grey never planned to spend so many years fighting gambling. After Army service in Vietnam, he served as a Methodist pastor in Chicago, then in Galena, Ill., where he fought a local casino proposal. The county referendum yielded 80 percent voter opposition. But the vote was nonbinding and county officials let the casino come anyway.

Grey learned that gambling initiatives are deals cut in back rooms between politicians, lobbyists, and gambling operators. "I fight with a pastor's heart, but with an infantryman's tactical approach," he said. "I'm just a little guy, a rifle company commander. I'm still waiting for the generals to join me in this battle."

So he will keep on fighting against gambling proposals, winning a surprising number of battles in David-and-Goliath contests. The legal gambling lobbyists are Goliath in that they have millions of dollars to spend, in contrast to opponents who usually run their campaigns from kitchen tables. Grey travels the country on a budget, often lodging in homes with fellow gambling opponents.

He thinks top business leaders ought to help preserve the economic fabric of their cities, and occasionally they do. In Nebraska, Omaha-based billionaire Warren Buffet lent his name and money to help defeat a gambling initiative in his state. Though conservative, or long-term, in his investment philosophy, Buffet tends to be liberal politically. Gambling opposition, Grey has discovered, cuts across ideological lines, with the opposition an interesting mix of left and right.

Grey and other gambling opponents attribute the Methodist impulse against gambling to John Wesley, the British evangelist whose 18th-century preaching and social reform launched a prison-reform movement, encouraged education for the poor, protested slavery, and fought gambling. Wesley rode thousands of miles by horseback with his message, and Grey has covered even more miles in America, but in the old Wesley circuit-riding tradition, taking the evangelist's emphasis on discipline and showing how indulgence in the gambling habit leads to social and economic ruin.

"In the beginning I thought I would stand up, do the right thing, and probably get beat by the gambling industry," Grey says. "Now I'm dangerous. We're winning the hearts and minds of people, as evidenced by our ballot-box victories."

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.

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