Conversation: Thomas A. Grey
A thorn in gambling's side
As legalized gambling marched inexorably across the nation during the past 15 years, one faithful warrior has stood in its path at every juncture. Tom Grey, who served as an adviser to a Vietnamese infantry battalion during the Vietnam War, has used guerrilla tactics to go toe-to-toe with an industry that typically outspends anti-gambling campaigns by 100 to 1.
Grey serves as executive director, field coordinator and spokesperson for the underfinanced and understaffed National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling. The frugal Grey, a former United Methodist minister, earns $36,000 a year leading NCALG as he assists grassroots supporters in waging local battles. Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., his frequent opponent in debates, draws a $1 million annual salary as president of the American Gaming Association.
No one else has more experience or knowledge in the fight than the populist underdog Grey, who lives in Spokane, Wash. Grey, 66, recently spoke with News Editor John W. Kennedy.
tpe: How did a local battle in Galena, Ill., catapult you onto the national scene in 1992?
Grey: All of a sudden the county board announced, without discussion, that it wanted to put in a riverboat casino. Fighting gambling was way down on my list of causes, below issues like racism and poverty. But I went to the board the next week and asked, "Do you realize what gambling does to a community and its people?" They said, "It's not gambling — it's gaming. It's economic development, jobs, jobs, jobs. It's a painless revenue stream. Only the willing do it. It's entertainment, like shopping and the movies."
I was thunderstruck they were giving the gambling promoters that kind of cover. We formed a citizen's group and sponsored an informational meeting at which 150 people showed up. In the 1992 election, in a nonbinding county referendum, 81 percent of the voters opposed bringing in a riverboat casino. The county rammed it in anyway.
tpe: Then you started fighting gambling full time.
Grey: Based on that local battle, my bishop asked if I would be the point person to fight a casino proposal in Chicago. I agreed to help mobilize a grassroots effort statewide. We were able to cut it off.
I gave up my pastoral appointment. I received calls from local groups fighting referendums in Missouri and Indiana. I always knew the ballot box is the way to beat them. Since I started I've been to 49 states fighting the same arguments I fought in 1992.
tpe: Are there many people fighting it on a nationwide basis?
Grey: I kept thinking the cavalry would come at some point because we hold the high ground. That just didn't happen. I still think we will win, but I hoped that more prominent religious leadership would have emerged by now.
But we've been a credible opposition. Gambling can't try to go anywhere today without someone trying to fight it locally. It's not in Gettysburg, Pa., it's not in Madison, Wis., and it's not in a couple of hundred other places because we fought the battle.
But once gambling is in a community it metastasizes.
tpe: What's the status of Internet gambling since Congress voted overwhelmingly last year to criminalize most forms of it?
Grey: We were able to get Congress to go on record saying Internet gambling is bad and it shouldn't be in people's homes. If this were entertainment, would Congress do that? Once our national leaders stamp gambling as legitimate entertainment the fight is over. We have groups formed in Iowa and New Hampshire that will be asking presidential candidates if they would veto legislation if Congress approves Internet gambling. I can't imagine any saying we ought to legalize it again.
tpe: The American Gaming Association reported record commercial casino revenues again last year, totaling $32.4 billion.
Grey: It keeps going up, and that's not surprising. If the products are available and accessible, the pathology of the addiction increases. If diseased people run out of money, they are extended credit. When that's gone they tap out their families. They turn to crime. People can lose not only their weekly paycheck but also their life savings — in one evening.
tpe: Tell me about the movement afoot for states to privatize lotteries.
Grey: Five states have looked at it, but it hasn't happened anywhere yet. The two biggest bidders are from Italy and Greece. Lotteries originally were presented as the final and complete answer to educating our children. Do we really want a foreign company bent on expanding gambling in an effort to maximize profits taking care of American schoolchildren? If California approves it, it could start a wave.
tpe: What do you think about casinos reopening along the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, even before housing reconstruction?
Grey: Casinos in Mississippi have taken advantage of a disaster to get rid of restraints requiring casinos to be offshore. It's apparent casinos will control politics in Mississippi forever, just like in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, N.J.
The greatest indictment in Mississippi is that when the casinos reopened they made more money than before. It's a sign of how predatory the industry is. These weren't tourists spending money in destroyed places. They were local people who needed money to rebuild homes.
tpe: Do state legislatures still view gambling as a cure-all for economic ills?
Grey: It has nothing to do with the truth about gambling's promises. If gambling were successful, they wouldn't have to keep expanding it to fill budget shortfalls. Now a dozen states are hooked on gambling, either because of the amount of money gambling puts in the state budget or by the electoral process of who gets elected.
The gambling industry has many "cash-and-carry" legislators. You give them the cash, and they carry your bill. There are Democrats and Republicans who won't do anything to stop gambling because that would cut into its profitability.
tpe: This doesn't sound too encouraging.
Grey: There are good signs. Across the nation there also are liberal and conservative politicians fighting to keep gambling out.
Pew Research did a survey last year showing that 70 percent of Americans believe people gamble too much. I'm encouraged that people are uneasy about gambling. You'd think with all the gambling industry's money, advertising, publicity, muscle and accessibility that they would have won the hearts and minds of the population.
Pew also said a plurality of people in communities with casinos think they had a negative impact. Finally, only 23 percent of those surveyed said they enjoyed gambling, down from 34 percent 15 years earlier.
tpe: That same Pew survey showed that nearly two-thirds of Americans don't see gambling as a moral issue.
Grey: That's right. Americans tend to say, "Who am I to dictate the morality of a choice to another person?" But if we define it in social terms, is it moral to take advantage of addicted people because they are paying for education? When we win an election, I know people are voting against gambling for moral reasons. Down the road we hold the winning hand. If I didn't believe it, I would give up.
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