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On May 18, the District’s Board of Elections (BOE) tossed out a petition seeking a referendum on the establishment of riverboat gambling on the District’s waterfront. It was the fifth time in three years that gaming advocates have been unsuccessful in their attempts to put the issue before the city’s voters. But instead of getting the hint, they immediately promised a brand-new petition campaign to pass Initiative 54, as the measure has come to be called. The sixth attempt will add yet another exclamation point to what the city has long known about the riverboat interests: They may be poorly organized, but they are a well-funded group that won’t take no for an answer. And more importantly—at least to the BOE—they apparently have no respect for the petition process.
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In this particular round of fruitless petitioning, riverboat proponents—transparently named the D.C. Committee for Jobs and Economic Growth through Riverboat Gambling (DCCJEGRG)—relied on the same cheesy economic development arguments aired ad nauseam in their previous campaigns. “We believe that it would be good for the city and bring in thousands of jobs,” said Cortez Fletcher Jr., acting head of DCCJEGRG, at the May 18 BOE meeting. That message has failed to resonate with District residents ever since the first riverboat petition drive three years ago.
Community groups have been quick to strike back with economic development arguments of their own. “Folks with a lot of money see the waterfront as a Christmas goose, and they’re ready to carve it up,” says Andy Litsky, a waterfront resident and chairman of the Ward 2 Democrats. “D.C. will not benefit socially or economically [by adopting riverboat gambling].” He notes that gaming sites in cities like Atlantic City and New Orleans are surrounded by squalor, and that there has been no discernible job creation. (The gambling racket has increased business for local prosecutors in those jurisdictions, but that’s another story.)
The stakes in the debate over gambling will remain low until riverboat organizers collect enough valid signatures to place their initiative before District voters, and recent experience suggests that may be a long shot. At last week’s meeting, BOE Junior Executive Director Emmett H. Fremaux said that the latest petition drive was “insufficient numerically.” DCCJEGRG collected an estimated 10,500 verifiable signatures but needed some 17,000 to put its initiative on the Sept. 10 ballot. BOE threw out approximately 20,000 signatures.
Dorothy Brizill, a longtime riverboat gambling opponent, has pledged to request a BOE investigation of irregularities in DCCJEGRG’s petitions. Brizill alleges that many of the sheets are whited out, and some circulators apparently signed their names on several petition sheets. Alice Miller, BOE’s legal counsel, said that the some of the petition’s circulators are not registered voters.
It wouldn’t be the first instance of riverboat proponents cutting corners. Four circulators from the 1994 petition drive were recently convicted of falsifying parts of their petitions. Three of the four were sentenced to one year’s probation and 75 days of community service; the fourth will be sentenced next week. The convictions are the first ever under the District’s corrupt election practices law.
In addition to challenging petitions and demanding investigations, gambling opponents have spent time trying to figure out who the real opposition is. Although Fletcher is the putative head of DCCJEGRG, opponents suspect that Conrad Smith, a veteran District political hand, is orchestrating the group’s activities. After the May 18 meeting, Fletcher told gambling boosters that they should immediately get in touch with Smith. Smith—who is reportedly behind school board member Valencia Mohammed’s possible bid for a District council seat—did not respond to calls about his role in the initiative.
Opponents will learn more about DCCJEGRG on July 31, when the group is required to divulge funding sources and its campaign budget in a report to the District’s Office of Campaign Finance. Expect to see Memphis-based Promus Corp., owner of Harrah’s Hotel/Casino, figuring prominently among the group’s contributors. Promus gave DCCJEGRG $110,000 for the group’s fall 1995 campaign.
Even with the backing of Promus and other monied gambling interests, DCCJEGRG continues to fall on its face. And if it is ever successful in putting together enough bona fide signatures to force a referendum, Brizill’s group—Citizens Against Casino Gambling—promises to build opposition by forming a coalition with other gambling opponents, including the D.C. Ministry, congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, and the Washington Board of Trade. They will argue in no uncertain terms that what’s good for the gambling interests has nothing in common with the interests of the District. —Melissa Dole