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top: Debbie King • bottom: Seth Perlman/AP

Anti-predator strikes

Business | Reformers try to stop the aggressive spread of legal gambling

Issue: "On the road again," May 9, 2009

Social reform groups should never change their names.

Usually.

The NAACP never changed its brand as the leading civil-rights group after World War II. Long after colored people became Negroes, who became black people, who are now African-Americans, it remained the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Change the name, lose the brand and everyone gets confused.

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Now another group, the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, has a new name: Stop Predatory Gambling.

This time it works. The old name wasn't a public brand, and the new one captures a vital truth: Gambling feeds a devastating addiction for those who indulge in this habit. And a new bill in Congress to repeal a ban on online gambling may serve to speed up the addictive bent.

Stop Predatory Gambling could capture more public attention, similar to the way Mothers Against Drunk Driving grabbed the public eye in the 1980s and 1990s.

And it's clear that the anti-gambling movement needs help. Legal gambling has expanded by leaps and bounds since the 1960s, with new state lotteries, Indian casinos, and electronic machines in bars and restaurants. From a mob-controlled business confined to Las Vegas in the 1950s, legal gambling has become at least a $100 billion-a-year business. It has a corrupting political influence that is hard for public officials to resist.

The other scandal is quiet. The consequences of addiction spread slowly. Marriages break; consumer debt soars; bankruptcies climb. White collar crime emerges, as addicted gamblers steal from small businesses and schools.

With the issue on the ballot, gambling advocates usually can outspend any opposition. Yet opponents win some battles. On 2008 Election Day casino proposals were defeated in Ohio and Maine. Massachusetts voted to ban gambling on greyhound dog racing, partly with the dog-lovers vote as well as some opposition to gambling.

Maryland, though, voted in favor of slot machines. Arkansas voted for a state lottery, and Missouri voters removed some restrictions on the extent of gambling.

Usually the issue gets decided at the state or local level, but Congress is now looking at whether to repeal its ban on internet gambling. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., is proposing the repeal and plans to hold hearings this month. Democrats might see internet gambling as a potential source of tax revenue, even as internet users have usually resisted taxation.

The outcome of Frank's proposal is uncertain because gambling doesn't necessarily divide by political party. Some strong opponents have been liberal Democrats. Taylor Branch is a Pulitzer Prize--winning historian of the civil-rights movement and a leading opponent of the slot machines in Maryland. "A lifetime spent studying Martin Luther King and the civil-rights era steeps you in what democracy requires," he explains. "The first rule of the American experience is that we don't play each other for suckers. The government shouldn't play its own citizens for suckers."

Also joining the movement in a new way is Les Bernal, the new executive director of the Stop Predatory Gambling organization. Bernal was chief of staff for Massachusetts State Sen. Sue Tucker, one of the leading opponents of legalized gambling in Massachusetts.

With a background in Massachusetts politics, Bernal is an eloquent critic of legal gambling. He puts it this way in advising political officials on the subject of tax revenue from gambling: "Let's say you could prove definitively that the potential benefits of increased cigarette tax revenues to the state outweighed the added health-care costs that promoting cigarette sales would bring. Would you support the state promoting cigarettes? Why doesn't that logic apply with casinos?"

Bernal will lead the national movement that includes a Washington, D.C., office while Tom Grey continues as field director from his home in Washington state. Grey, a retired Methodist minister, still runs mini-marathons at the age of 67 but wants to encourage a younger generation to join a movement often dominated by Methodists because of John Wesley's social reform legacy.

The Stop Predatory Gambling movement doesn't have millions of dollars. But the moral authority behind the opposition sometimes wins battles even when predatory gambling advocates have more money and power.

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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