Hundreds of members of American Legion, VFW, Elks and Moose lodge members and others marched around Legislative Hall off the Green Thursday to petition state legislators to reinstate the use of gambling machines at their organizations.
It was the first organized, lobbying response to the state's declaration that the use of gambling machines by veterans and other organizations was illegal this past autumn. The Oct. 22, 2012 letter from the Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland Security stated that several social organizations, clubs and businesses had been illegally permitting patrons to play gambling devices in their establishments.
VFW and American Legion officials were incensed that the Oct. 22 letter did not get into their hands until Nov. 9 or Nov. 10, just before Veterans Day, accusing the Markell administrating of stalling the letter until after the election. The Markell administration had vehemently denied any such political maneuver.
The Delaware General Assembly convened this week for its 147th legislative session on Tuesday, just two days before the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Fraternal Order of Elks, Moose Lodge, Amvets, Delvets and the Sons of Italy gathered on Legislative Avenue between the Duke of York and William Penn streets to petition the state Legislature for a redress of their grievances.
All of the organizations combined had donated $5.5 million annually to various charities and causes in communities statewide thanks largely to use of nickel and dime gambling machines, said Jeff Crouser, adjutant of Walter L. Fox Post No. 2 American Legion in Dover. That included $100,000 alone from the Fox American Legion in the state capital, he said.
"We weren't here to throw rocks or anything," Crouser said. "We just want our representatives to know we're depending on them. There are several American Legion posts and VFWs that are in serious jeopardy — that are at the point of closing their doors."
Hundreds of veterans, lodge members and other nonprofit representatives proceeded to march around Legislative Hall several times.
Among them was Joe Cummiskey, commander of VFW Post 838 in Port Penn near Middletown.
"The money we made from these gambling machines went to scholarships for students and the people who needed help paying their heating bills in the winter," Cummiskey said.
Larry Marcouillier, of American Legion Post 7 in Harrington, said he was worried about the two ambulance companies run by the legion out of Smyrna and Georgetown. Both depended largely upon the gambling revenue, supplemented by some state funding, he said.
After a few turns around Legislative Hall, the post commanders and lodge leaders made their way up the steps to Legislative Hall where State Reps. Peter C. Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth Beach), William J. Carson (D-Smyrna), John C. Atkins (D-Millsboro) and Dennis E. Williams (D-Talleyville) met them to hear them out.
Page 2 of 2 - "It is imperative that we continue to operate," said Stephen Pepe, exalted ruler of Elks Lodge 2540 in Lewes. "Our books are open and will continue to be open. We help so many people in the community."
Schwartzkopf said he appreciated everything that the VFWs, American Legions and other organizations did for the local communities in which they were operating. But the state's action in November was simply about abiding by the law, he said.
"We have a state law and, more importantly, a state constitution that says you can't do this," Schwartzkopf said. "[And] you guys are being taken advantage of by vendors. You're paying a lot of money. Most of them are not licensed in our state. They're violating federal law."
But Michael Carmody, commander of VFW Post 5892 in Hockessin, presented Schwartzkopf with state legislation from 1984 that allowed VFWs and similar groups to use gambling machines.
"We've been allowed to do this for over 30 years," Carmody said.
Schwartzkopf said he was unfamiliar with such legislation. But, he and the other legislators patiently listened as they were surrounded by veterans and others lobbying for legislative reform.
Carson told veterans and members of other nonprofit organizations that he wanted to get legislation passed that would help them.
"We want to get this done and get it done right for all community organizations," he said. "Don't think we're not on your side. These things come about."
Crouser, chair of the Non-Profit Coalition working to legalize the machines, said he just hoped legislators realized that up to 200 fired employees throughout Delaware could end up drawing state unemployment and other state benefits until they could find other jobs. He said the American Legion in Dover alone had already laid off 14 employees.