Raffle debate opens doors to more controversy

I, for one, didn’t feel all that welcome after being invited into one of Aurora’s social clubs earlier this year.

But it had nothing to do with my ethnicity, gender, skin color or age.

I was at the Aurora Phoenix Club on assignment that frigid January night as around 480 people crammed into the building on the city’s East Side to see who would win the Queen of Hearts jackpot, a progressive raffle that had climbed to over $200,000.

A club member invited me, and I walked through the doors with no problem. The place was jammed. Drinks were flowing while an air of anticipation grew as the evening progressed.

But as soon as I identified myself as a journalist, I got the feeling I was not welcome.

It quickly became more than a feeling: As one Phoenix Club leader told me, “we don’t want any more attention” drawn to this unusually-high jackpot because things could get unpleasant for all the local social clubs that had begun relying on these raffles to keep them afloat.

I thought his concerns were interesting, since City Hall was already aware of what was going on. In fact, officials were forcing the club to hold the drawing that night because it had already far exceeded the $100,000 limit on jackpots. The club had even been ordered to donate $20,000 of the proceeds to Fox Valley United Way.

I was not kicked out immediately. Rather, Phoenix Club honchos whispered among themselves. I grew more uncomfortable, even while chatting with the security guard at the door, as they gathered a quorum of the board of directors to decide my fate.

It didn’t take long. Grim-faced, they announced the decision was unanimous. The men were polite, even apologetic, when they gave me the boot. And though I understood their reasoning, it was a surprisingly unsettling feeling.

Yes, I’ve been kicked out of plenty of places as a journalist. But not at such a happy event, not after being invited in and never by a quickly-called vote.

Although this rejection was certainly not any form of bias based on intolerance, nor could it even be taken personally, it hit me later how little I’ve had to face real discrimination in my life.

According to a news story by reporter Stephanie Lulay, that’s the word used repeatedly in a memo describing the city’s research in recommending new rules about limiting jackpots at these social clubs to $500.

The memo noted that the survey indicated people had indeed felt discriminated against by these clubs in the not so distant past, an accusation club leaders vehemently deny.

This criticism is but one bullet fired by the city to justify limiting private club payouts that officials insist can take away from the not-for-profits in town … not to mention the all-about-profit Hollywood Casino.

These clubs, some more than a century old, were obviously founded upon a selection process that not so long ago had also excluded women.

I have no idea if any form of discrimination is going on — we all know it can be subtle, even hidden. But it’s certainly a fact these private organizations are a historic and still vibrant part of the entire community.

Just this week I received a press release from a lovely woman with the Irish Club. She’d also called several times because she wanted to make sure readers know about the “Wounded Warriors Benefit” beginning at 5 p.m. Aug. 15 at the club on Highland Avenue. In addition to lots of food and music, there will be raffles all day for a chance to win $500.

Hardly $200,000.

But win, lose or draw in this lateset gambling controversy, my wager is the better clubs will find a way to survive. I certainly hope so.

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