Betting on the hopes of the poor

You can get canned tomatoes, toilet paper and tuna at the Hilltop Red Apple on Beacon Avenue South in Seattle.

You can also lose your house, scratch away your child's future and trade your Quick Pick numbers for the kind they put across your chest just before they shoot your mug shot.

The Hilltop Red Apple was the highest-grossing lottery-ticket outlet of the state's 3,500 retailers last year.

And it is the example members of Citizens Against Gambling Expansion (CAGE) used to oppose legislation that would allow the Washington Lottery to expand gambling in the state.

House Democrats behind the bill say upping the number of Keno games, and the number of places where they can be played, would raise $102 million for the state in 2005-2007.

But the money would be made on the "false hopes" of the poor, said King County Executive Ron Sims at a news conference with fellow CAGE member Norm Maleng, the King County prosecutor.

"Gambling preys upon the poor," Sims said. "It says to them that if you gamble, it will turn your life around."

Maleng said gambling is "a complex public policy issue. They're treating it as a budget issue, and that's wrong."

The Rev. Leslie Braxton, of the Mount Zion Baptist Church, asked: "Is it in the character of our state to close the budget by these means? Financially exploiting known pathologies?"

I have to agree, for gambling is a bona fide addiction, able to topple pillars of morality like former Secretary of Education William Bennett. Can't we dig ourselves out of the budget hole without taxing the poor who can't dig themselves out if their numbers don't come up?

Washington Lottery spokesman Eric Jones tied the Hilltop Red Apple's high sales to its location in a "densely populated area" — not the neighborhood's economic status.

"That has nothing to do with it," Jones said, adding that sales are also high at an upper-income area south of Lakewood.

That's a long way from Beacon Hill, where a man sat in the store lot working the silver film off his Scratch-It card.

Inside, Katie Smith walked away from the Lotto counter.

"Just one day, I thought I would give it a try and won $5," said Smith, who works in retail.

She's been spending $3 or $4 a week, for more than a year now. The most she ever won was $90.

"Every now and then, you win your money back," she said. "But I can't afford to play more than this. As they say, 'Know your limit.' "

Store manager Dean Hasegawa simply sees his lottery business as giving people what they want.

"If people want Italian-style canned tomatoes, I'll stock them," he said. "For lottery, it's the same thing.

"I don't force it on people."

No, but he's bound to draw a crowd this Saturday when the store will promote the Lottery's new Corvette Cash game by parking one of the cars outside.

"Just like any other promotion," Hasegawa said. "I would do the same for barbecue sauce."

Nicole Brodeur's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or at

She's up for $4 million.