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Anybody can play slot machines. Yet winning big, really big, at government-licensed slots requires a lot of strategy and skill.

First, start with a big, pretty picture: Say you want to transform a 12-acre stretch of New York Avenue NE into a $500 million entertainment complex complete with a multiplex movie theater, a bowling alley, restaurants, and a hotel. The project, coincidentally, includes an economic jackpot in the form of 3,500 video gambling devices.

But the D.C. political establishment despises big gambling operations. How do you sell the concept?

A few strategies for how to beat the house:

Slots Secret #1: Don’t call them slots!

Never, ever refer to the highly addictive electronic games of chance as slots or video gambling. Use the preferred euphemism: video lottery terminals (VLTs).

D.C. already promotes certain types of gambling, including the D.C. Lottery, Powerball, and Keno, which disproportionately claim the income of low-wage dreamers and senior citizens. Say that you’re really proposing a “lottery expansion,” so that those who can least afford to travel to slots emporiums such as Dover Downs in Delaware and the Charles Town Raceway in West Virginia can lose their money right here in D.C.!

Who really wins? You say the city’s schoolchildren and the elderly! Pledge 25 percent of the net revenue from slots, which you estimate at a tantalizing $190 million a year, to the city. Suggest that District leaders plow that newfound money into the dysfunctional D.C. school system and into a prescription-drug-benefit program for seniors.

After all, Grandma won’t be able to afford her meds after she gambles away her social security check at the VLTs!

Slots Secret #2: Say it’s not sin—it’s family-oriented entertainment.

Sure, there’ll be 3,500 gambling terminals for adults in the complex. But there’ll also be bowling, movies, and a “kids entertainment zone.”

That sure beats a junkyard and a Taco Bell!

Doesn’t every family head to Atlantic City for the tenpins and filmgoing?

Slots Secret #3: Employ a big-time lobbyist as your pitchman.

Manatt, Phelps & Phillips attorney John L. Ray has excellent credentials. He served 18 years on the D.C. Council, where he learned how special interests maneuver in the District.

The experience pays off in his current job. Ray is a lobbyist for some of the city’s biggest contractors, including Greater Southeast Community Hospital, D.C. Chartered Health Plan, and Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio & Associates, as well as for the William C. Smith Co. and the Republic of Congo.

He maintains close ties to the city’s elected leadership. Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose worked for Ray in the ’90s. He served as finance chair of Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson’s re-election campaign in 2002. And Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent B. Orange Sr.’s chief of staff, Estell Lloyd, worked for Ray during his tenure as an at-large councilmember.

He’s not afraid to represent controversial clients: Ray at one point served as counsel for the Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison concern.

An astute observer of D.C. politics, Ray knows that Mayor Anthony A. Williams and the D.C. Council won’t pass legislation approving slots. So Ray has signed on as counsel to a citizens committee to put “lottery expansion” on the ballot and take the issue directly to the voters.

Don’t worry that representing slots supporters requires Ray to amend his views on the issue. In 1993, while serving as acting D.C. Council chairman, he strongly objected to a proposal by former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly to bring casinos and riverboat gambling to the District.

At the time, the city was on the brink of bankruptcy and Kelly saw slots as an infusion of quick cash. “The mayor is showing up because she’s for casino gambling. I’m showing up because I’m against it,” said Ray.

Slots Secret #4: Cloak the initiative in the language of jobs and economic development.

In a largely African-American city such as D.C., support from the city’s minority business community is very important. So recruit a big-name businessman like Dynamic Concepts Inc. chief Pedro Alfonso to chair the slots effort.

Alfonso owns a telecommunications firm in the District, sits on important boards, and hobnobs with the local business elite. Alfonso will trumpet the role of minority businesses in the project and frame it as economic development for a long-neglected neighborhood. “John and I have been friends for many years and we have shared the same vision of developing a project to spur economic growth on the New York Ave gateway to the City,” says Alfonso via e-mail. “When he heard of this project, he called me and said that this could provide the stimulus for the project we had often discussed over the years.”

Oh, and also provide Alfonso a nice chunk of that $575 million net revenue from slots!

According to Alfonso, the Capital Horizon Entertainment Complex would generate approximately 1,500 jobs and cost $500 million to build. That would mean lots of business for local minority and disadvantaged contractors.

That argument worked like magic with the new Washington Convention Center!

Slots Secret #5: Portray the slots effort as a grass-roots citizens’ movement.

If we want to turn New York Avenue into the next Marvin Gardens, that’s D.C.’s choice. Argue that District voters have the right to decide!

And the proper way to guarantee that right is to present the slots license as a ballot initiative. In order to get on the ballot, you’ll first have to prove that expanding the city’s gambling opportunities qualifies as a proper subject for an initiative. The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics makes that judgment call.

The initiative needs to meet certain criteria. An initiative cannot allocate city money. It cannot violate the D.C. Home Rule Charter. It cannot violate the D.C. Human Rights Act.

A ballot initiative can allow special interests to circumvent elected government and take a chance with uninformed voters, however. Sure, initiatives permit individual D.C. residents to make decisions on public policy, but how many citizens actually take time to read a voter’s guide before entering the voting booth?

Remember: Ballot initiatives need to evoke New England town meetings rather than secret cabals of outside investors and local opportunists. Incorporate your limited-liability corporation in Delaware for the friendly corporate tax laws, but make sure to incorporate another entity here in the District. Also, assemble a team of community activists with local bona fides to testify before the elections board.

Call the group something like the Citizens for Jobs, Education, & Healthcare Initiative Committee.

Make Alfonso chair of the local organization. Recruit Ward 5 resident and political organizer Vickey Wilcher as the group’s treasurer. Wilcher has credibility, despite being a Democratic Party turncoat. (In the ’90s, Wilcher worked on local Democratic campaigns, including those of Ray and Ambrose. Then she changed registration and headed up the local Republican committee.)

Make Margaret Gentry the group’s custodian of records. Gentry works closely with Ray on his lobbying efforts and knows how to get paperwork processed in D.C. government. Gentry’s role in the organization will become crucial when trying to meet deadlines to satisfy the elections board.

According to elections law, a proposed initiative must get proper notice and appear in the city’s legal bulletin, the D.C. Register. When deemed an appropriate subject for an initiative by the Board of Elections, the short title and summary statement must again appear in those pages. Gentry knows how to work tight schedules. Nearly miss the publishing deadline? Gentry will go to Kinko’s, get labels, and mail the copies herself.

And a few other allies couldn’t hurt:

Orange: The councilmember represents the Ward 5 neighborhood where the proposed slots parlor would go. He’ll be sure to write a letter in support of an expedited D.C. Register publication for your initiative. Orange would embrace anything less smelly than a garbage dump in this corridor. He also chairs the D.C. Council’s Committee on Government Operations, where he has championed local, small, and disadvantaged business owners in the city such as Alfonso.

Lawrence Guyot: The civil-rights warrior and home-rule activist could combat the moralists who claim slots as a scourge on society. With his commanding speeches and Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party history, Guyot lends moral authority to the cause.

Ann Walker Marchant: An initiative requires approximately 17,500 valid petition signatures to get on the November ballot. That’s where Marchant would come in. The PR professional has plenty of experience with petitions as well as the Board of Elections. Marchant served as a spokesperson for the 2002 re-election campaign of Mayor Williams. That campaign handed in about 8,000 more signatures than Williams needed to get on the ballot.

Too bad just about all of them were invalid.

Marchant herself admits that the gambling petition drive would have to hire paid petition circulators, just as the Williams campaign did in 2002. At the going rate of a dollar per signature, that’s a big expenditure. How to pay for all of this?

Here’s an idea: When you incorporate in Delaware, use an ambiguous-sounding name, such as North Atlantic Investments LLC. Favorable laws in the First State not only limit taxes and other corporate liabilities, but also prevent nosy activists and reporters from finding out about you and your investors.

Slots Secret #6: Hope that D.C. Watch Director Dorothy Brizill is on vacation when you try to expedite the ballot-initiative process.

Lady luck runs out on this one.

The executive director of the nonprofit D.C. Watch knows D.C. election law and process backward and forward. Brizill spends a lot of time reading the D.C. Register and examining documents filed at the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance. It’s a good bet that Brizill will file a challenge to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics stating that the gambling initiative should be rejected, on multiple grounds.

On June 21, Brizill and two other D.C. residents marched into D.C. Superior Court and did just that, challenging the initiative filed by Alfonso in April and approved by the board this month. The challenge stays any action on the initiative until the court makes a ruling.

Brizill knows that a July 6 deadline looms: In order to get on the ballot, the initiative still needs 17,500 valid signatures. Even with the efforts of professional signature gatherers, that makes tough odds. —Elissa Silverman

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