Snake eyes

Corporate gambling interests finally ran into a stretch of bad luck in Alabama and South Carolina, and the national implications are staggering.

Published October 27, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Recent surprise defeats of organized gambling (in Alabama at the polls and in South Carolina in the courts) have been an authentic David vs. Goliath story -- which is especially pleasing for the victors, many of whom hold to a literal belief in David and Goliath.

But this is not merely another case of Southern upheaval. While Goliath -- powerful national gambling interests -- is hardly down for the count, these defeats should force presidential candidates to address the dramatic nationwide expansion of gambling. The discourse not only should provide amusing rhetorical acrobatics, but could perhaps help Bill Bradley -- who has opposed organized gambling -- permanently relocate Al Gore
back to Nashville.

The anti-gambling victories have been portrayed as the work of conservative Christians, but in fact they represent a larger political trend that cannot help but pierce the bliss of Gambling Inc. The belief that organized gambling corrupts both individuals and the political process has drawn a widening swath of voters -- a broad coalition that reaches all the way from Focus on the Family chief James Dobson to Ralph Nader. As one anti-gambling advocate says, "You can fit all of America between Dobson and Nader."

These two gambling defeats took different paths. In Alabama, where Gov. Donald Siegelman won office by promising a lottery would pump money into Alabama's dismal public school system, 61 percent of voters still supported the lottery as of late August. But the usually reliable sales pitch -- let's support gambling for the children's sake -- was beaten back with the politically liberal argument that the lottery money would come out of the hides of Alabama's poor. A very rare coalition of black and white churches stepped in to lead the crusade, which voters approved, 54-46 percent, despite being outspent three to one.

The political upheaval was even more dramatic in South Carolina, where the state Supreme Court ruled this month that the $2.8 billion video poker industry must cease operations at the end of June 2000. The ruling came after a poker baron filed suit to stop an upcoming referendum; while the court agreed the referendum was unconstitutional, it also ruled that without a public referendum the games could not maintain their legal status. (Even if the referendum had been allowed to proceed, observers say the industry faced certain loss at the voting booth. Polls had indicated that as many as 70 percent of likely voters -- rallied by an unusually diverse coalition -- wanted to pull the plug on the games. )

Anti-gambling activists milked an old moral theme: that gambling offers something for nothing, therefore diminishing the role of fair and honest labor in human affairs. But the coalition also made use of more political themes: Video gambling hurts the poor; it is an economic drain; it is bad for the state's image.

"I've never seen a coalition like this one," says Ed McMullen of the South Carolina Policy Council. "You had blacks and whites, rich and poor, Baptists and Jews, liberals, conservatives and libertarians, and people from every region of the state." Even the trial lawyers were in on the kill: A lawsuit alleging that video gambling represented unfair trade practices and a RICO racketeering violation was victorious in district court, and a class action against operators is in the works.

"At first people on the left didn't want to get in," says Tom Grey, head of
the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling. "They thought the anti-gambling effort was a movement by the same people who support flying the Confederate flag over the capitol. But then we got the Methodist Church on board, and in South Carolina, the Methodist Church is 20 percent black. After
that, the bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal church joined, because they knew that African-Americans are getting hurt the worst. When the Chamber of Commerce signed on,
it was like the cavalry coming in."

It all represented a dramatic turnaround: When Gov. David Beasley
declared in 1998 his intention to shut down video poker, Democrat Jim Hodges
rode a wave of gambling money into office. But as the referendum drew closer, the operators began suffering the effects of several years of bad local and national publicity.
For one thing, there were the news stories: A child suffocated in a car while mom gambled away her paycheck; a poker operator was jailed for bribing a sheriff; a hit man was allegedly contracted to take out a rival operator. There was also the fact that one could not enter a one-pump gas station in the most remote part of the state without bumping into two or three video machines and a handful of poker drones.

The video operators played every card in their deck. They begged the state to tax them more heavily for the sake of public education, asserted that as many
as 70,000 jobs were at stake and warned that the coalition's next targets
would be liquor and rock music.

Gambling interests are also reportedly behind a statewide billboard campaign promising the elimination of the state's hated car tax if gambling were approved -- though an industry spokesman denied the connection.

None of the scare tactics worked, however, and the courts ruled against the video poker operators. "The big boys who run the casinos are laughing because they think this is just about a lottery and rogue video-poker operators," says Tom Grey. "But they don't realize how much has changed because of these victories. We were getting very close to getting driven out by money and muscle. Now, these broad coalitions show that we're not just a bunch of religious do-gooders. People are recognizing the harm [gambling] machines do. And it doesn't matter if the machine is in a South Carolina gas station or on a gambling barge on the Mississippi River."

While an immediate rollback of gambling legalization is unlikely, a change in public sentiment could force presidential candidates to take
a stand on gambling. Both parties, however, are drenched in gambling money.

Common Cause reports that Democrats have received $8,526,711 in PAC and soft
money from gambling interests over the past decade, while Republicans have pulled in $8,011,333. The largest donor, the Hotel and Restaurant Employees
International Union, which represents 75,000 casino workers, gave a total
$2,120,657 in PAC and soft money since 1989, 81 percent to Democrats.

Timothy O'Brien, a New York Times reporter and author of the book "Bad Bet," said the industry put at least $4.5 million into national campaigns between 1992 and 1996, making gambling "a political force at the federal level on a par with the National Rifle Association and the United Automobile Workers."

Mother Jones magazine, meanwhile, found that the industry gave more than $100 million in donations and lobbying fees to state legislators between 1992 and 1996.

Politicians don't like talking much about gambling, especially in this era of
public expressions of piety. A politician may boast of a personal relationship with the Creator, but if he's known to be funded by Las Vegas, with its innumerable hookers, pastie-twirlers and hustlers, the effect is somewhat diminished.
(One exception to the piety promoters is Donald Trump, now considering a run for the Reform Party nomination, who owns casinos and whose gambling empire donated a total of $427,000 to both parties between 1989 and 1998.)

The flashpoint for Republicans should come during the South Carolina primary.
"When Republicans come to South Carolina, they're going to have to say where they stand on gambling," says Grey. "It's all people are talking about down there. Steve Forbes" -- who has the luxury of not having to depend on party money -- "has spoken against video poker ... Bush spoke out against casino gambling while he was governor of Texas, but when he was in South Carolina a while back, he took a pass on video gambling. He said it was a states' rights issue. McCain has said a few things against gambling, but not much."

McCain may be talked out for now, and for good reason. McCain has raised more money from gambling interests than all the other presidential candidates combined, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. During the first six months of 1999, McCain reportedly took in $51,663, perhaps because of his support of 1995 pro-gambling legislation and his strong backing of Indian casinos. American Gaming Association chief Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. adds that McCain "never misses a championship fight in Las Vegas."

On the Democratic side, the issue is bubbling in New Hampshire. Democratic
Gov. Jeanne Shaheen supports a "slots for tots" initiative to put video
gambling machines at four racetracks to raise money for education. Video gambling, she says, is the "least onerous way to address that revenue shortfall."

It happens that her husband, Bob, is Al Gore's state campaign chairman, which
may partly explain why Bill Bradley has shown interest in the issue. "If I were governor, I wouldn't go this route," he said during a visit. (Bradley opposed a statewide gambling initiative in his own state, New Jersey, in 1974, though casino gambling was approved two years later). Bradley sounded a bit like an Alabama Baptist: "You walk into these places and the people who are there are people who really can't afford to gamble."

Which, of course, raises the question of where a prominent Tennessee Baptist stands on the issue. "It's a perfect set-up for Bradley," says Grey. "He can ask Gore, who is the beneficiary of gambling money, why we should work so hard to get people off welfare and back to work, only to have casinos move in and take their paychecks. It also gives him a perfect segue into campaign-finance reform, where Gore is also vulnerable." Gore may be about to learn an often-overlooked lesson, he concludes: "Gambling will get you money, but it won't get you votes."

By Dave Shiflett

Dave Shiflett is a freelance writer living in Midlothian, Va.

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