Two Sides of Casinos' Coin
By Edward Walsh
Fordice cannot conceal his enthusiasm when he talks about the economic transformation of Biloxi and other parts of Mississippi's once sleepy Gulf Coast or describes how rural Tunica County south of Memphis has gone from being "one vast cotton field" to a center of tourism and bustling economic activity. "There were 16 hotel rooms total in Tunica County when I came into office in 1992," he said. "Now there're over 5,000, and they've got 500 more planned."
But when Fordice looks at his home town, site of one of the most critical confrontations of the Civil War, he sees an entirely different and less pleasing kind of transformation. "I think Vicksburg has turned into a rather tawdry little gambling town," he said.
In the last several years, legalized gambling has spread across the country, encouraged by state governments that were hungry for revenue but reluctant to raise taxes. Nowhere has the phenomenon taken deeper root than here in Mississippi, which now ranks behind only Las Vegas and Atlantic City as a gambling mecca.
But the success of gambling has also engendered an anti-gambling movement in parts of the country that could become problematic for politicians with strong ties to social and religious conservatives. That is especially true in a place like Mississippi, where Southern Baptists comprise the state's largest and most influential religious denomination and where the championing of "traditional family values" is an almost required component of a winning political campaign.
Anti-gambling fervor does not approach abortion or prayer in public schools as a cause that excites the passions of religious conservatives, but it is attracting attention from some of their prominent Republican leaders. Gambling's most vocal critics include Gary Bauer, head of the Family Research Council, who is thinking about running for president, and James C. Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, who not only is an increasingly important player in GOP politics but also is a Republican-appointed member of a national commission that is studying the impact of the growth of gambling.
"There is definitely an anti-gambling movement," said Charles H. Cunningham, director of national operations for the Christian Coalition. "It is not organized at all levels or in all states, but there is a movement out there. . . . It's heating up in certain states where the politicians have not gotten the message."
Some politicians are finding gambling an attractive political target. It is shaping up as an important issue in Maryland's Democratic gubernatorial primary in September. Gov. Parris N. Glendening is vehemently opposed to a proposal, supported by his main primary rival, Harford County Executive Eileen N. Rehrmann, to authorize slot machines at the state's thoroughbred race tracks, which are in financial decline.
South Carolina Gov. David M. Beasley (R) is basing much of his reelection campaign this year on a drive to eliminate video gaming devices from the state. Other Republicans are carefully nurturing their anti-gambling credentials. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, often mentioned as a possible GOP presidential candidate in 2000, sold his interest in a real estate investment company shortly before the company purchased a string of Las Vegas casinos.
For Republicans, casino gambling represents a classic dilemma: While social conservatives may decry it as a source of addictive behavior, bankruptcy and the breakup of families, economic conservatives are drawn to its financial impact. Video poker devices installed in gas stations, convenience stores and bars in South Carolina are one thing, but the casinos and related developments that have sprung up here on the Gulf Coast and along the Mississippi River represent hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment and thousands of jobs, just what conservative Republicans say they want to encourage.
The inherent tension between the conservative social and economic views of casino gambling was never more evident than last February, when the Southern Republican Leadership Conference held its biennial meeting at the Grand Casino Biloxi Hotel. A parade of potential GOP presidential candidates addressed the conference, lamenting what they called the abysmal moral standards and example of President Clinton. Only one, Missouri Sen. John D. Ashcroft, who is appealing to his party's most socially conservative elements, mentioned the location of the meeting. "The truth is that gambling is a cancer on the soul of our nation," Ashcroft told the audience, many of whom then promptly returned to the slot machines and blackjack tables in the adjacent Grand Casino.
"People don't have a problem with gambling; they don't want it in their back yards," said Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., a former Republican National Committee chairman who now heads the American Gaming Association, made up of the nation's leading hotel-casino operators.
Fahrenkopf argues that gambling has gained social acceptance largely because 37 state governments and the District of Columbia have gone into the business for themselves by sponsoring lotteries. "You're talking about a legal industry that's tightly controlled and gets the hell taxed out of it," he said. "I think politicians and legislators balance these things."
The history of how casino gambling eased into the unlikely location of Mississippi suggests how politically sensitive the issue can be. It began in the late 1980s, when the state legislature approved "cruises to nowhere," allowing a ship to sail from Biloxi into the Gulf of Mexico, where an onboard casino would open as soon as the vessel reached international waters. "The idea was it was out of sight, out of mind," recalled Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D).
But in 1990, state Sen. Tommy A. Gollott (D) of Biloxi maneuvered a critical change in the law through the legislature. It authorized dockside gaming, doing away with the long cruises into the gulf. As part of the deal making, the measure also allowed riverboat dockside gambling along the Mississippi River, winning the support of lawmakers from the Mississippi Delta. Mysteriously, in a key state Senate vote, about eight conservative senators pledged to oppose the bill complained of a stomach ailment that kept them off the floor for the showdown.
"It was amazing the gastrointestinal problems that could come to the Mississippi legislature on that day," said Paul Jones, executive director of the Christian Action Commission of the Mississippi Baptist Convention and a leading gambling opponent.
The 1990 law gave Gulf Coast and Mississippi River counties the right to approve dockside casino gambling by referendum. Not all of them jumped at the chance to embrace this activity. Jackson County, just east of here and home of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for his party from gaming interests, rejected gambling. It took two votes to win approval of casinos here in Harrison County. Fordice twice voted against gambling in Vicksburg, but eventually it was approved there too.
No one anticipated how much gambling would flourish in Mississippi. Unlike many states, Mississippi did not limit the number of casino licenses it would grant or restrict the casinos' operations, as Iowa unsuccessfully tried to do when it initially imposed wager and daily loss limits on patrons of its riverboat casinos. Today there are 29 state-regulated casinos operating in Mississippi, including 10 in Harrison County and nine in Tunica County.
A handful of casinos have failed, but others are being built. The Beau Rivage, a $600 million hotel-casino development of Las Vegas gaming entrepreneur Steve Wynn, is rising on the gulf shore here and scheduled to open next year. The 32-story structure will be the tallest in the state.
"The casinos jump-started everything here," said Michael J. Olivier, executive director of the Harrison County Development Commission. "It was a very sleepy, slow economy."
Whatever their personal views, local politicians have become gambling enthusiasts. "When it comes to this issue, my county supervisor says his only complaint is that he can't get a wheelbarrow big enough to carry the money across the street to the bank," said Nonnie DeBardeleben of nearby Pass Christian, Miss. She is fighting plans for two new Gulf Coast casinos on an undeveloped stretch of St. Louis Bay, not because she has moral objections to gambling but on environmental grounds.
But those with strong moral and religious objections to gambling are also planning one last attempt to shutter the casinos. As an outgrowth of a strategy meeting held in Jackson in May, a move is underway to gather enough signatures to force a statewide vote to outlaw gambling in next year's state elections or the 2000 presidential election.
Among those who attended the strategy session was the Rev. Tom Grey, a Methodist minister from Galena, Ill., home to a riverboat casino that eventually failed. Grey, field coordinator of the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion, sees anti-gambling sentiment as a rising tide that will have to be addressed by presidential hopefuls in 2000. "We have a war on drugs, a war on tobacco; how about a war on gambling for kids?" he said.
Jones and other gambling critics note that support for Mississippi's casinos has never been put to a statewide vote. But if it is, he conceded, "we will have as hard a sell as we have ever had on anything." Gambling is the source of numerous social ills, Fordice said, but to close the casinos now "you'd be confiscating all that property and that's totally wrong. I would oppose that as strongly as I've opposed anything."
Clark Reed, who as state party chairman and an RNC member was a key figure in the rise of the Mississippi GOP, said the state is at a "standstill" over the issue of casino gambling. "The attitude is it's really bad but I'm really enjoying it," he said.
Unlike Fordice, Reed voted to bring casinos to his hometown of Greenville and said he would do so again, even though he has friends who have lost more than they could afford in the local casinos. "Even in this poor town, there are at least 1,500 people working," he said. "It takes a lot of people to run these things around the clock."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company