Election 2010: Governor’s Race and Gambling

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Next week, Alabamians head to the polls for this year’s mid-term elections. Voters will select congressmen, state legislators, and a new governor. This morning on WBHM, we kick off Election 2010 – a week long look at some of the key races and issues on the ballot.

Of course the biggest political news this season is this month’s arrest of four state senators, two casino owners and several top lobbyists. They allegedly ran a vote buying scheme to curry favor on a gambling bill in the legislature. WBHM’s Andrew Yeager takes a look at what the gambling arrests could mean for the men seeking the governor’s office.

Gambling isn’t a new issue in the Alabama governor’s race. Democratic candidate Ron Sparks has been talking about legalizing gambling since the beginning of his campaign. In fact, it’s a cornerstone.

“I’ll fight to tax and regulate gambling in Alabama to pay for education and to take care of our seniors.”

UAB communications professor and political pollster Larry Powell says the gambling indictments have turned the issue radioactive. Especially given the amount money allegedly at play in this corruption case.

“Ten thousand or $20,000 is one thing. One million, two million, that really gets the public’s attention.”

Federal prosecutors allege two casino owners offered millions of dollars in campaign contributions in exchange for lawmakers’ support of a bill legalizing electronic bingo. Not the best climate for Ron Sparks to be advocating expanded gambling. Still he defended his efforts in last week’s debate at Auburn University.

“If we’d have done what I wanted to do seven-and-a-half years ago. We wouldn’t be where we are today.”

Sparks’ opponent, Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert Bentley, says he’s personally against gambling, but does support a statewide vote on whether Alabama should have it.

Campaign Attacks

Sparks campaign did not respond to requests for an interview, but he has publicly accused Bentley of accepting money from Mississippi gambling interests. Sparks cites a $5,000 contribution from Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour’s political action committee. A small portion of the PAC’s money comes from two casino operators and a gambling machine manufacturer. Robert Bentley denies the accusation.

“We’ve never taken any money from gambling.”

Bentley says Barbour’s PAC contributed to the campaign because Barbour supports Republicans across the south. Bentley also defends contributions from a Tuscaloosa businessman with ties to dog racing in Alabama and horse tracks in Texas. There’s $10,000 the Bentley campaign received from the dog track last year after being passed through a number of PACs.

“When we found out where it had come from we gave it back to the PACs.”

All these attacks about gambling money come from Ron Sparks, a candidate who admits he takes money from gambling interests. Campaign finance reports from this summer show by that point Sparks already accepted almost $75,000 in gambling contributions, including some from indicted casino owner Milton McGregor. But other than a brief mention at last week’s debate in Auburn, Robert Bentley has not been tying Sparks to the gambling money. Bentley says the connections are self-evident.

“When people look at the corruption involved in the gambling industry and when my opponent talks about gambling as his number one issue, he ties himself to it. I don’t have to tie him to it.”

Maintaining the Lead

A hands off approach makes sense to retired University of Alabama political scientist Bill Stewart. Polls show the Republican Bentley with a lead over his Democratic opponent. Stewart believes the gambling arrests help solidify that lead.

“When you have the lead you just want to keep it and you don’t want to say anything that might rock the boat so to speak.”

UAB’s Larry Powell agrees Bentley is on solid footing. But he says voter turnout could change that. Powell says Bentley wins easily if voters head to the polls in numbers similar to recent elections. But if turnout is down, it’s a crap shoot. He says one factor is how voters feel.

“If it’s anger, they go out and vote against somebody. If it’s disgusted and they don’t like either party about that, they just stay home.”

And Powell’s sense of the public mood…

“Right now there’s more disgust than anger.”

A hit of a gamble in an otherwise sure bet of a race.

Andrew Yeager

Andrew Yeager