Alabama governor wages one-man crusade against bingo machines; raids stir racial tensions

By Phillip Rawls, AP
Thursday, March 4, 2010

Alabama governor cracks down on bingo machines

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The governor of this Bible Belt state is waging a one-man crusade against gambling — and stirring racial tensions in the process — by sending state troopers on late-night raids to shut down electronic bingo parlors.

Republican Bob Riley, a lifelong opponent of gambling, contends the electronic devices are essentially slot machines, which are plainly illegal in Alabama. He formed a task force a year ago to halt their spread.

He has forced the shutdown of more than 30 gambling halls — ranging from modest storefront operations to big, glamorous Vegas-style palaces — and idled more than 2,000 workers. Many of the bingo parlors are in poor, black areas.

Black leaders have complained that their communities are being deprived of vital jobs and tax revenue.

“Fifty years ago, George Wallace sent state troopers to Macon County to prevent the desegregation of our schools,” said former state Sen. George Clay, who is black, referring to the segregationist governor. “Here we are again with state troopers sent back to Macon County to shut down our economic engine.”

Task force commander John Tyson said this is not a replay of the 1960s but a case of illegal casinos preying on people. He observed dryly: “I doubt this is what Dr. Martin Luther King had on his mind when putting his life on the line for equal rights in America.”

However, some of the same people who stood with King, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, are planning a march Saturday in Montgomery to support laid-off casino workers and encourage the Legislature to hold a statewide referendum on reopening the bingo parlors.

“This march is about jobs, justice and the opportunity to vote,” civil rights veteran Johnny Ford said.

In pursuing his crackdown, Riley bypassed his hand-picked attorney general, who contended the machines were legal, and some county prosecutors who did nothing about the rapidly growing phenomenon. The governor, who is in his second and final term, has pledged to keep up the fight until he leaves office in January.

“That was a pretty easy call because when I put my hand on the Bible and swore we would uphold the laws, I think everybody in Alabama took it seriously,” he said.

The bingo furor has become all-consuming in Alabama, with the candidates who are vying to succeed Riley in the fall election complaining that it is taking away attention from economic issues such as jobs, declining tax revenue and an 11 percent unemployment rate — the highest in 26 years.

Alabama voters overwhelmingly rejected a lottery in 1999. But electronic bingo arrived in the ’90s and proliferated over the past several years, first with the opening of modest, cinderblock casinos, then with the rise of glittering gambling halls at luxury hotels and spas. Casino operators invested more than $500 million last year to develop tourist destinations.

VictoryLand near Tuskegee has 6,400 machines, making it the biggest casino in Alabama. Country Crossing at Dothan has 1,700 machines and the backing of such country music stars as George Jones and Lorrie Morgan. Both places closed indefinitely after more than 100 troopers massed at each location for raids.

The jackpots vary at the casinos, though one has advertised several winners of more than $100,000 on its billboards.

Bingo played on paper cards has been legal in Alabama for many years, and the casinos say bingo machines are just electronic versions of that. But the governor contends they fall under the law that bans slot machines. Casino operators are battling in court to reopen, but Riley recently won a decision from the Alabama Supreme Court saying one county’s machines were illegal.

Riley’s critics say the late-night standoffs with law enforcement are unseemly and legally questionable. In some cases, law officers ushered out the gamblers, backed moving vans up to the front door, and loaded them up with hundreds of machines. No arrests have been made.

Attorney General Troy King, who has had a falling-out with the governor over gambling, said he has “never seen a more ill-advised and reckless approach to a legal issue.”

One casino Riley has not tried to raid is in predominantly black Greene County, where the sheriff said he will block any attempt to seize bingo machines without a warrant, and state Sen. Bobby Singleton warned: “You will see a bloody day in Greene County.”

Nothing like that has happened yet, though tensions are high. Last week, laid-off casino workers drowned out the heavily guarded governor with their shouting as he tried to speak to religious groups opposed to casinos.

Riley, 65, spent much of his two terms focused on economic development, winning large investments by foreign companies. Unlike past Alabama governors, some of whom campaigned for segregation or school prayer, he has had no signature issue — until now.

“He wants his legacy to be that he shut down illegal gambling in Alabama,” said William Stewart, former chairman of political science at the University of Alabama.

Natalie Davis, a political scientist at Birmingham-Southern College, said the governor may win the legal fight, “but people will remember that he upset the lives of a lot of people and created a mess.”

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