Attention Conservation Notice: This post is about Alabama politics and the use of American Indian imagery to score political points.
Spotted this billboard the other day in East Lake, Birmingham.
The three men on the right are Alabama Governor Bob Riley, John Tyson (current head of the Governor’s Task Force on Illegal Gambling) and David Barber (the first head of the task force). An Indian war bonnet adorns the space above the three mug shots.
Gambling is one of the hottest issues in this year’s state elections. The FBI is investigating alleged bribery of state legislators on behalf of owners of the state’s giant “electronic bingo” palaces, where slot-style machines are passed off as legal charity bingo. [Stateline.org summary]
What does this have to do with Indians? Lately, not so much; this billboard is an anomaly. For pro-gambling forces, it had been a perennial favorite strategy to spread innuendo that politicians who oppose gambling are doing the bidding of casino-owning Mississippi Choctaws. So on the one hand you have white Alabamians like Milton McGregor (of VictoryLand, etc., etc.) and Ronnie Gilley (of Country Crossing). On the other, you have Big Chief Ugh-Amugh-Ugh from the reservation. Which ones do you want to be in charge of casinos where Alabamians gamble? Red men or white men?
This racially charged approach had to be set aside this spring, when the federal investigation spooked lawmakers away from a bill that would have held a statewide referendum to approve gambling. If successful, the resulting law would have ensured a monopoly on gambling for large e-bingo operators while freezing out potential competitors. No doubt we would have seen Injun propaganda in the run-up to the vote, in a bid to overcome the evangelical voting bloc that opposes all gambling.
But the bill failed and there won’t be a referendum this year. So it fell to Stan Pate, a Tuscaloosa real estate developer, to keep the flame alive with his one-man billboard campaign. Pate is a mercurial activist whose opinions, from what I’ve seen, are driven mainly by personal resentments. (He really, really hates Bob Riley.) His money gives him the means to trumpet those opinions, which are deeply felt, however poorly sourced.
I’ll concede that Mississippi Choctaw leaders have almost certainly spent money to influence some Alabama political races, with an eye toward thwarting large gambling outfits that could compete with theirs. Alabama’s lenient campaign finance laws make it possible for them to do this without leaving a paper trail. Those same laws, which allow PAC-to-PAC transfers, make it very difficult to prove that any particular politician accepted money from a specific sponsor. We can only talk in probabilities.
The claims about Riley and the Choctaws, though, strike me as both implausible and weakly sourced, even by the low standards of Alabama politics. Riley’s campaign against electronic bingo farms is explained by a desire to stop a corrupt business that extracts unknown millions from susceptible citizens, many of whom lack the knowledge to calculate their own losses or critique the easy-money sales pitches. Low-achieving local politicians are anxious because they have relied on gambling revenue to balance their budgets. Gambling bosses are masters of applied psychology, and it has been child’s play for them to organize picketing crowds of employees. Meanwhile, reporters mine quotes from addicted patrons.
Some of the better reporting has shown how bingo farms in strip malls, far from boosting the local economy, tend to drive customers away from adjacent businesses. The state government, funded by the public, bears the cost of social damage caused by gambling addictions. Bingo farms are concentrated in the poorest sections of the state (the Black Belt counties and the poorest urban areas). Gambling bosses try to turn this into a strength, arguing that they are providing jobs in jobless communities. MacGregor and Gilley have also tried to mask the squalor they are creating by building glittering entertainment complexes that cater to the middle-class tourist minority among gamblers.
Many liberals take a knee-jerk permissive stance on gambling, either out of vague libertarian notions or because it aligns them against evangelicals, whom they despise. Deeper reflection would lead them to realize that gambling is a dead-end economic development strategy, unwise state fiscal policy, a species of corporate welfare, and an incubator of crime, including domestic violence.
The invisible hand won’t fix this one for us. Gambling is not a business contributing to a healthy, free market. It’s a shell game played on the fringes of the market by a fast-talking charlatan, always ready to make off quickly with his winnings.
Gambling bosses would like to turn politics into a shell game as well. “Don’t look at me, keep your eye on the pea! Now the governor’s got it, now he’s closing down the bingo halls, now he’s passed it to the Mississippi Injuns, now they’re killing Alabama’s future.…”
It’s a sucker’s game, y’all. Keep your money in your pocket. And don’t give this guy your vote.*
* Tips for voters: Candidates most likely to cater to gambling bosses include Ron Sparks (D, governor), Troy King (R, attorney general), James Anderson (D, attorney general), Giles Perkins (D, attorney general), and Tracy Cary (R, Supreme Court Place 2). Cary is infamous for posing as an outsider candidate with too little campaign cash to report, then spending more than half a million on media buys right after the last reporting deadline. This man has the mind of a con artist. ↩