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Roving anti-gambling leader doubles down in Maryland


The Rev. Tom Grey has never been one to run from a fight - even when the odds are stacked against him.

And the odds are seldom with the Illinois-based, anti-gambling activist as he battles aggressive campaigns by deep-pocket gambling interests to expand to an ever-growing number of states.

In Maryland, though, Grey sees a good opportunity for success. He says he likes his chances.

If the right grass-roots mix of civic, religious, political and business groups come together and generate enough heat, Grey says, they can sink Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plan to allow 10,500 slot machines at four Maryland racetracks.

"The pieces are all there for a victory," said Grey, who is head of the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion. "It's ours to take, at this point."

The bespectacled Methodist minister is doing everything he can to make that happen - frequently flying in and out of Maryland to help rally church groups and others against the slots bill.

He was back on the scene two days after Maryland's worst snowstorm on record, catching a Tuesday evening flight from Chicago's O'Hare Airport into Baltimore.

He talked to a small church gathering in Laurel on Wednesday. On Thursday, he met in Washington with representatives of national advocacy groups that cover both ends of the political spectrum - from James Dobson's Focus on the Family to Ralph Nader's Public Citizen. He hopes to enlist their help in the Maryland battle.

"The religious right has always understood very clearly the impact of this on families," Grey said. And for liberals and progressives, gambling is "an issue of social justice" - that government shouldn't prey on its most vulnerable citizens to raise money for essential services.

After a brief return to Illinois for the weekend, Grey plans to come back to Maryland in time for an anti-slots rally and the first legislative hearing on Ehrlich's slots bill tomorrow.

Such battles have been Grey's mission in life since 1992, when he fought efforts to bring a riverboat casino to Galena, Ill., a rural town across the Mississippi River from Dubuque, Iowa. Grey was pastor of a small church in Galena at the time.

His efforts mushroomed into a national anti-gambling campaign as casinos spread through the economically distressed Midwest in the early 1990s and then into other regions.

Grey is fervent in his belief that government-sanctioned, casino-style gambling is destructive to society. "This is about the future of America," he said. "This is big stuff. At 62, I've got the chance to fight the battle of a lifetime and make a difference for my kids and grandkids."

His wife of 37 years, Carolyn, says her husband is uniquely qualified for the job.

"Tom can be like a pit bull if he's convinced that he's right," she said. "He just doesn't get discouraged. We've had some big defeats, but I don't think I've ever seen Tom get depressed. He figures even if he loses a battle, he's getting the word out - that even in defeat there's victory."

On special assignment for the United Methodist Church, Grey draws a $3,000-a-month salary that comes from donations to the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion. Those who invite him to a state to speak - usually churches - pay his air fare. He typically stays at the home of a local anti-gambling activist.

Grey likens his approach to that of a soldier "living off the land" as he wages guerrilla warfare against a much more powerful adversary.

A Dartmouth graduate who majored in history, Grey was an infantry captain and saw combat while serving as an adviser to a Vietnamese infantry battalion in 1966 and 1967. He frequently uses military images when he talks about his battles against gambling interests.

His biggest fear is that churches and other groups that oppose gambling in Maryland won't get out enough troops to contact legislators and appear at hearings. House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat and a key slots opponent, can't hold the "high ground" forever without support from troops at the rear, Grey says.

He sees Maryland as a critical front in his larger war against gambling expansion, pointing out Ehrlich's strong support for slots as a source of revenue to help solve Maryland's budget woes.

"A win here against all odds puts a marker on the board," Grey said. "I told Speaker Busch, 'You hold the high ground for the nation right now.'"

Grey's efforts win praise from people such as Kevin McGhee, pastor of Bethany Community Church in Laurel, where Grey spoke last week.

"He's more informed than the rest of us are," McGhee said. "We see him as a consultant and a team builder."

But McGhee, who is president of the Laurel Clergy Association, said it ultimately is up to churches and others in Maryland who oppose slots to make their voices heard.

"The only thing more powerful than money in politics is votes," McGhee said. "We don't have the money the gambling industry does, but we have the votes."

Gambling interests have taken note of Grey's efforts.

Frank Fahrenkopf, head of the American Gaming Association, the industry's chief lobbying arm, has called Grey a "phony" and worse.

"I've been called a do-gooder, a moral crusader," Grey said. "Then I was a religious zealot. In Idaho, I was called the American Taliban."

In 1994, a group promoting casinos in Missouri hired a Washington-based consultant to research and write a dossier on the opposition, including the then-little-known Grey.

"Spearheading the anti-gambling crusade ... is a wandering religious fanatic named Tom Grey, a Vietnam soldier-cum-preacher who treats this crucial matter of public policy as if it was the last siege of Hamburger Hill - using the church as his personal recruiting station," the consultant wrote.

He went on to describe Grey as "an obsessed gypsy, bent on expunging the mortal sin of gambling from the American fiber, wherever it exists."

But Grey quickly steers any talk about gambling away from sin and morality toward what he says is the harmful impact it has on the larger society.

"The bodies are stacking up," he said of people whose lives have been destroyed by gambling.

He says he believes he is succeeding in changing the terms of the debate.

In the early days, casino-style gambling was promoted as a matter of economic development and job creation. Now, he says, the debate is focused more on whether it is harmful to the public.

"When I was in infantry school in Fort Benning, I learned that whoever defines the battlefield and dictates the terms of the battle will decide the outcome," Grey said.

"That's what we're doing," he said. "This is not good economics, it's not good public policy, and it's not good for the quality of life of a community."

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