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Michigan coalition awaits check of petitions against Detroit casinos

DETROIT (BP)–Southern Baptists in Michigan — along with other pro-family groups in the state — are waiting to see if their efforts will keep Detroit from becoming the nation’s largest city with casino gambling.
A final batch of petitions was delivered by the pro-family Coalition to Repeal Proposition E to the Michigan secretary of state July 8, bringing the total number of signatures to about 268,000. Some 247,127 signatures of registered voters are needed to get a statewide referendum on the Nov. 3 ballot. The referendum is needed to overturn a 1996 statewide vote that approved casino gambling by a 51-49 percent margin.
The 1996 vote has sparked major controversy in Detroit, where the mayor and city council have approved construction of three downtown casinos by companies with Las Vegas ties. The pro-casino forces have been buoyed by an extensive media blitz by casino proponents, including Las Vegas casino tycoons, many inner-city clergy and much of the Detroit news media.
Republican Gov. John Engler, whom some political pundits say is a possible GOP presidential candidate in 2000, has voiced opposition to casinos. But he was recently criticized in an editorial by The Detroit News for finalizing “compacts” with four more Indian casinos around the state. Casinos are legal on Indian lands in Michigan, which also has a state lottery.
“When a freight train from hell is about to run over you, you better pray that God awakens his people,” said Cal Zastrow, organizer of the pro-family coalition opposing the casinos. “We do not know how many of the signatures are from Southern Baptists, but we appreciate their efforts.”
There are 261 Southern Baptist churches and 56 missions in Michigan with a membership of about 43,000, according to the Michigan Baptist Convention, which has passed a resolution supporting the pro-family fight against the Detroit casinos. The convention’s executive director, Michael Collins, has written articles opposing the casinos in the state Baptist newspaper, and the convention provided telephone numbers and addresses of every Southern Baptist pastor in the state to the pro-family coalition.
“We’ve also completed a mail-out to every Southern Baptist church in the state and each one had a petition,” said James Jones, evangelism ministry leader for the Michigan convention.
It will likely take two weeks for the Michigan secretary of state to verify the 268,000 signatures turned in by July 8. Pro-casino attorneys have vowed that every signature will be checked in hopes of reducing the number below the 247,127 valid signatures needed to place the referendum on the ballot.
“I can assure you that every single signature they file will be scrutinized,” a spokesman for one of the casino groups told The Detroit News. “Every single one.”
One of the more controversial aspects of the casino fight has been the role of inner-city clergy. National Baptist ministers, for example, have joined other black clergy in downtown Detroit in expressing support for the casinos. They have defended their stance based on the 11,000 new permanent jobs casino owners claim will be created. The unemployment rate for Detroit, which is 76 percent black, is about 4.5 percent. A June 13 job fair sponsored by the casinos, reportedly drew 8,000 applications. Some black clergy have purchased newspaper ads citing the advantages of having casino gambling in the city.
Martha Jean Steinberg, a Detroit minister and radio personality who is an investor in one of the three casinos approved by the city, believes the casinos will be the city’s saving grace. “I prayed on this,” she recently told The New York Times. “He (God) spoke to me and said my name. Detroit is a woman. The woman has been beaten down and talked about by everyone in the world, and now the Lord has lifted her up and anointed her with a new opportunity. We’re going to heal our wounds.”
The plot and cast of characters thickened July 7 when pop singer Michael Jackson and black millionaire casino owner Don Barden announced plans to build a downtown casino as part of a $1 billion theme park. Barden’s plans have been rejected by Mayor Dennis Archer and the city council. Detroit voters will settle the issue between Barden and the city on an Aug. 4 ballot. That election will decide whether Barden will get one of the three casino licenses already approved by the city. Detroit newspapers are billing that vote as “a heavyweight fight” between Barden and Archer. Archer said he would prefer Barden and Jackson look for another way to invest in Detroit’s future — perhaps with a hotel and theme park — minus a casino.
But in a July 7 news conference, Barden said all he wanted was “a fair chance” at building a casino. Jackson, throwing kisses while wearing pink lipstick and a military jacket, was quoted by the Detroit Free Press as saying, “And my mission is to just push the envelope of technology beyond its limitation in creating the most wonderful themes as humanly possible for the heart, for the childlike heart that lives inside every man and woman.”
But even if voters approve the Jackson/Barden casino, there could be state constitutional roadblocks because of the city’s agreement with the other three casinos. Jackson would also face scrutiny from state regulators who are doing background checks on casino investors. The Detroit News reported state regulators have indicated they would question Jackson about a reported multi-million dollar settlement Jackson paid to a 14-year-old boy who accused him of molestation.
“These casinos will cause all kinds of problems,” Jones said. “It’s nothing more than a cruel tax on people who can least afford it. A lot of people will go in those casinos and lose their shirts. We are going to have to have some kind of ministry to deal with the people who will become addicted to gambling.”
Throughout the petition drive, the pro-family coalition has drawn ammunition from a number of studies revealing the destructive nature of casino gambling. For example, a report prepared by the Florida governor’s executive office concluded tax revenues from casino gambling in Florida would only pay for a maximum of 13 percent of the minimum projected crime and social costs that would result from the presence of casino gambling in the state. An April 1996 Reader’s Digest article stated between 1988, when the first of Minnesota’s 17 casinos began operating, and 1994, counties with casinos saw the crime rate rise twice as fast as those without casinos. The increase was the greatest for crimes linked to gambling, such as fraud, theft and forgery/counterfeiting.
More recently, a Louisiana State University study commissioned by the state shows that 6 percent of Louisiana’s children already are addicted to gambling, which is legal in that state. Of 12,000 students surveyed, 86 percent of the state’s children between grades six and 12 had gambled, the study said.
Organizations ranging from Focus on the Family, Eagle Forum and the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, to the U.S. Taxpayers Party and Concerned Women of America have rallied to the state to oppose the casinos. Focus on the Family mailed about 120,000 letters to Michigan voters in April, according to Ron Reno, senior research analyst for the organization’s department of legislative and cultural affairs.
Focus also supplied radio ads warning of the dangers of casino gambling. That prompted threatening letters from pro-gambling attorneys to five Christian radio stations which ran the announcements. The letters accused the stations of violating campaign finance laws. “It was nothing but a scare tactic to get my stations to not air the information,” said Jon Yinger, owner of the stations. “Our attorneys advised us to keep running them and we did.” The pro-family coalition received similar threats after it placed more than $100,000 worth of ads in about a dozen Michigan newspapers.
If the pro-family groups are successful in overturning the 1996 vote, they believe it would derail plans for the Detroit casinos. A June poll commissioned by The Detroit News showed a statewide referendum vote in November on casino gambling would be too close to call.
“If these casinos are built, it will be a disaster for Detroit,” Zastrow said. “Gambling addictions will increase, alcoholism will increase and bankruptcies and business failures will increase. By God’s grace we’re not dead yet, and by God’s grace we will fight to the end — and the Lord willing — we will be on the ballot Nov. 3 so we can stop Las Vegas from taking over Michigan.”

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  • Don Hinkle