Monday, March 12, 2001 | 11:27 a.m.
The casino industry has enlisted the help of entertainer Wayne Newton in the first nationwide, grass-roots campaign to bolster its political clout in Washington.
Newton has agreed to become honorary chairman of Americans for Casino Entertainment (ACE), a nonprofit citizens group created by the American Gaming Association, the industry's high-powered Washington lobby.
In literature describing ACE, the AGA says the new organization was launched to "support the industry against the powerful anti-gambling lobby that has convinced a group of Washington politicians that there is nothing good about casinos and gaming."
The primary goal, the literature adds, is to build a "positive national force" to deliver the real facts about the industry to the "Washington-based pressure groups and politicians."
AGA President Frank Fahrenkopf said in an interview that ACE was created amid numerous political threats against gaming on Capitol Hill, including the NCAA's campaign to ban betting on college sports in Nevada.
"One of the untapped resources and assets of the gaming industry is its customers," Fahrenkopf said. "We've got millions of people out there, and we've never really been able to mobilize them to assist the industry in fighting against unfair legislation in Congress that would impinge upon their rights to spend their money in a way they want to."
Fahrenkopf said Newton, a longtime friend, will be an important ally in the industry's efforts to reach out to those casino-friendly Americans.
"He feels a tremendous commitment to the gaming industry, and he wants to help the industry and the state of Nevada in particular," Fahrenkopf said.
Newton, known as "Mr. Las Vegas," has been a headliner on the Strip and active in civic affairs here for several decades.
One national gambling critic said this morning that he wasn't impressed with the AGA's new citizens organization.
"If their ace in the hole is a mercenary army with Wayne Newton as the general, we're not scared," said the Rev. Tom Grey, executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling. "We'll hold our ground.
"All this is going to do is call attention to them using their money and political muscle."
The industry, already regarded as a major campaign contributor in Washington, has intensified its lobbying on Capitol Hill since the first of the year to counter the NCAA's betting ban push.
Las Vegas casino executives have been making regular trips to the Hill to promote a bill that seeks stepped-up Justice Department scrutiny of illegal sports betting in the country, including on college campuses.
Fahrenkopf said his ultimate objective in the grass-roots campaign is to obtain the support of 10 million to 20 million supporters around the country to put more pressure on the industry's enemies in Washington.
"If something comes up before Congress that impacts the industry, we can activate them to write their senators and congressmen," he said.
In recent weeks the AGA has been sending out several test letters under Newton's signature to thousands of targeted gamblers across the country to determine which is the best message to woo supporters to its side.
"I have never written a letter like this before," Newton says in one letter. "After all, I'm in show business -- not politics. But like every American, I feel there are times when you simply must stand up and speak out for your rights and freedoms.
"Right now," Newton writes, "powerful forces are at work in Washington and in state capitals. A new coalition is forming -- a coalition of politicians and vocal anti-gambling groups that want to take away your right to enjoy casino gaming.
"They want to tell you how to behave, how to live and what kinds of entertainment you may choose. It's wrong and its happening right now."
Newton says he wants to sponsor the reader as a charter member of ACE to "protect our rights to choose casino entertainment."
The anti-gambling machine, Newton adds, is bent on pushing for "tough" new controls on the casino industry.
"You know who they are: People who have declared themselves morally superior to the rest of us," he writes. "They've decided what's good and what's bad. And there mission is to use Congress to write their agenda into law, even if it means trampling on your rights."
Newton calls ACE the "first genuine grassroots organization" designed to fight the industry's political foes.
"And we need your help to become effective and powerful enough to overcome the anti-casino lobby in Washington and its political allies," he says.
Then he asks the reader to activate a free membership card by either calling an 800 number, mailing the card to the AGA's headquarters in Washington, or logging on to ACE's website.
"Once you've activated your membership," Newton concludes, "we'll keep you informed on important issues and let you know when your help is needed to tell the politicians to stop meddling with our freedoms."