Not your grandmother’s game: Thurbert Baker and his big bingo gamble

Jekyll Island — In 1990, an unknown Democratic political strategist named James Carville convinced Zell Miller that church-going, middle-class voters in Georgia were ready to back a lottery aimed at putting their kids through college.

The lottery became the centerpiece of Miller’s winning campaign for governor, and was credited with staving off a Republican takeover of the state for yet another eight years.

Last week, Attorney General Thurbert Baker — a Miller acolyte in the Legislature during that period — proposed a return to the well.

Now a Democratic candidate for governor himself, Baker wants to bring electronic bingo machines into the state as a way to juice funding for the lower half of the educational ladder — from kindergarten through high school.

The $1 billion the game would raise each year, Baker says, could fund the smallest classrooms in the nation, extend the school year from 180 to 200 days, and send teacher pay through the roof.

With five weeks to go before the July 20 primary, his opponents quietly hint that the proposal smacks of a ninth-inning swing for the fences. Baker doesn’t entirely disagree.

“When we first started talking about the lottery years and years ago a lot of people said it was a bold swing as well,” Baker said in an interview following a debate of Democratic candidates on the coast.

During the debate, three of his rivals dismissed the idea. “I don’t think it’s good for our people,” said House Minority Leader DuBose Porter of Dublin.

“A very suspect source of revenue,” said David Poythress, former commander of the Georgia National Guard.

Carl Camon, the mayor of tiny Ray City in South Georgia, pointed to the Bahamas, where gambling is legal for everyone — except the people who actually live there. The object, he said, is to fleece visiting tourists, not to recycle money that’s already there.

The candidate who waffled was former Gov. Roy Barnes. “If it has merits, if the public supports it, then we ought to look at it,” he said. “My greatest concern would be how does it cannibalize the lottery?”

Barnes may have several reasons for choosing a middle ground. Like Miller, and certainly Baker, he understands that the average African-American voter — who stands at the center of the Democratic primary — is more tolerant of gambling than a white voter.

Then there’s the fact that Barnes, who ran against Miller in 1990, opposed the lottery — and now is required to concede its success.

There’s one more reason. As governor, Barnes engineered a crackdown that in July 2002 forced video poker machines from convenience stores throughout rural Georgia.

Store owners deprived of easy money joined the coalition that ousted Barnes a few months later. Do not think that this bit of history has escaped Baker.

But it is that image of a flashing, beeping machine, with a hypnotized patron staring into its cold eye, that could pose the largest hurdle for the attorney general’s idea.

In Alabama, where gambling laws are somewhat muddy, a dozen or so subsections of the state permit electronic bingo machines. Gov. Bob Riley, a Republican, equates them to slot machines, which are illegal in the state. He has engaged in a campaign to shut down the bingo parlors.

A proposed constitutional amendment to protect the machines, backed by Democrats, failed to clear the Alabama legislature this spring.

“It’s a bingo machine,” Baker said. “It’s not a slot machine, it’s not casino gambling. It is bingo. It is the same game we played for ages and ages. It’s just electronically played.”

Unelectrified bingo games, run by charities, are legal in Georgia. Some 25,000 charities indulge, Baker said. They brought in $25 million in 2006.

Baker points out that the Georgia Lottery Commission has long considered delivery of tickets through patron-operated machines. He does not mention that this is all the commission has done. It hasn’t dared to move forward with the concept.

Under the attorney general’s proposal, bingo machines would be licensed by the lottery commission. “Given the space that you have in most of these stores, you’re not going to be able to put that many in,” he said. “On average we think the outlets may take two machines. That’s what we think will probably happen.”

An operation in Dothan, Ala., which closed down in January under threat of a raid by law enforcement authorities, had 6,400 bingo machines.

“I’m confident that as people look into this proposal and get around the myths, people will look at this as a wonderful opportunity,” Baker said.

The question remains whether, 20 years later, in the shock of the Great Recession, a game of chance is a safe foundation for a political campaign.

As a Democrat, Baker points to the legendary example of Zell Miller. But Republicans might cite a more recent case: Ralph Reed’s 2006 run for lieutenant governor.

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27 comments Add your comment


June 19th, 2010
2:54 pm

BS. The video bingo lobby is AL is a crowd of bought and paid for crooks. The state supreme court has been very clear and unambiguous that Video Bingo is illegal. Some of the crooks in AL have tried nullification and are failing.
Video Bingo is a cancer and Baker ought to know better.
Wonder wheres the payoff is for him?

Rev Al Sharpton

June 19th, 2010
2:56 pm

King Roy will get the nomination.
Baker can’t even get the blacks in DeKalb County to back him.

Robert Schreiber

June 19th, 2010
3:16 pm

Baker has not disclosed the impact of Bingo on Lottery sales.

If $1B goes to electronic Bingo, then how much will the lottery which funds college tuition suffer?

His “failure to disclose” is consistent with his knowingly and willfully withholding material information from federal judge Thomas Thrash in Atlanta’s two sewer consent decrees.
Beginning in 2001, Baker has deceived the Court and the public regarding an Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision which requires that a permit must be obtained before fluids, such as sewage, can be stored in an aquifer.

Even after citizens learned about his deception in December 2008, he continues to withhold material information from Judge Thrash.

If Baker is elected Governor, what can the public expect in regard to enforcement of existing laws or any new laws if his proposed Bingo amendment is passed?


June 19th, 2010
4:37 pm

Or we could pay for schools the old fashioned way. We could all accept a little personal responsibility and allow a tax increase.


June 19th, 2010
5:24 pm

the lottery already has keno. what baker wants is to expand the distribution of lottery funds to all schools for all grades in all counties (he hopes).


June 19th, 2010
7:57 pm

Why not go all the way and give Vegas some real competition? The problem is preventing addiciton, and we have to make sure enough money is diverted to preventing and treating that.

Georgia voters

June 19th, 2010
8:12 pm

Has Thurbert Baker considered asking the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia to forego their “Bingo” deferred compensations for awhile? Over $7 million was discovered for just 7 presidents and there is more to come. To read the full story, click on:
AJC article on February 24, 2010, by Aaron Gould Sheinin stated – in part:
Still, (Chancellor) Davis could not immediately answer some questions, such as when Rep. Austin Scott (R-Tifton) asked how many employees of the system have total compensation packages of more than $500,000.

Question Man

June 19th, 2010
11:40 pm

Forgetting about the bingo idea, is anybody out there really planning to vote for Thurbert Baker?


June 20th, 2010
12:48 am

Bring casino gambling to the state. It will save me a trip of having to drive to Tunica and Biloxi. Convert underground Atlanta into a hotel and casino. Tourist and regular folks will spend a lot of money.


June 20th, 2010
1:37 am



June 20th, 2010
7:20 am

“and send teacher pay through the roof”. – most don’t deserve what they’re being paid now, why in the world would we increase their pay without their performance increasing? Oh, sorry I forgot we’re talking about the government, I’m sure we will want to add an increase in their retirement benefits also, “it’s all about the children.” Right!


June 20th, 2010
8:00 am

If Baker wants to swing for the fences, he should just mention he would explore the legalizing of med. marijuana. Why not look at other states sources of income and see if those could work here. CA has legal weed, NV has prostutition, Sunday beer sales.

Abe Lincoln had the correct idea on prohibition shouldn’t we have as much foresight as someone that lived over 100 years ago (145 to be more exact).

dawggie stile

June 20th, 2010
8:11 am

video poker is more fun that video bingo.


June 20th, 2010
9:15 am

Forget the half measures. Councilman Rob Pitts had the right idea in converting the old Ford & GM plants to full blown casino hotels. The revenue to the state and city coffers would be tremendous and include a boost to the flagging convention business for the other hotels, GWCC, airlines, etc. To allow this revenue to go to New Orleans, Vegas, and even backwaters like Tunica and Biloxi is ludicrous. We have to do some something to get the rural state legislators into the 21st century. They preach against the “nanny state” mentality on controlling health care and other care for the downtrodden but want to make sure that people that have problems with gambling don’t have the temptation to do something they already have means of doing. Get your heads out of the sand or whatever dark place they currently reside and make Atlanta a destination again for trade conventions and sporting events. Let some of the revenue go to fishing hall of fames or 4 lanes to Hahira if necessary but the lack of Casino gambling in a land locked city with not much else to offer entertainment wise is ludicrous. It is time to get state government to realize that there should be a separation of church and state and why even Sunday beer sales is not seen as a blatant flaunting of the Constitution goes a long way to explain why the state legislature has kept this state so backwards in comparison to so many other areas. The Ralph Reed’s of this state are not much different than the mullah’s in Iran. The country was founded on the principle that a man should have the freedom to live his own life as he sees fit until exercise of that freedom infringed on someone else’s freedom, at that point, and only at that point do you need a law.


June 20th, 2010
9:36 am

Question Man

June 19th, 2010
11:40 pm
Forgetting about the bingo idea, is anybody out there really planning to vote for Thurbert Baker?

WOW…..that is a “Scary” thought…..that causes goose bumps on my arms….

Marcus Graham

June 20th, 2010
11:03 am

Blacks are more tolerant of gambling that white voters? PLEASE ATTRIBUTE THE STUDY/SCIENTIFIC evidence that supports this.

Tired of BS

June 20th, 2010
2:06 pm

I read a comment somewhere that gambling was a tax on stupid people. In a way, it insures that those who are low income, will pay a portion into educating their children. Seems like a fair trade to me.


June 20th, 2010
2:37 pm

Know how to make a sweet old church lady say the F word?
Some other lady yells BINGO!!!!

No Teabagging

June 20th, 2010
8:20 pm

Electronic bingo machines have the possibility of corruption and control just like our voting machines. I don’t trust them!


June 21st, 2010
8:18 am

If this is the best Baker has to offer, then he should just sit out the race.

Many states have been sold the bill of goods that is “gambling = high revenues.” It doesn’t pan out. It actually seems to bring a haze of slime over the area that breeds depression and dirt. Go to any of the states that have legalized gambling, visit where those machines are located and tell me you would want to bring that here.

Let’s elect someone who has positive ideas and the ability to inspire and implement. Oh, wait, we don’t have anyone like that running!

Baby's Daddy

June 21st, 2010
8:20 am

W’ata a mattuh wid you, Thurbert. Bingo ain’t no kind of gamblin’.
What about craps, man, craps . . . nutin’ like rollin’ dem bones.

Jon Lester.

June 21st, 2010
9:43 am

You have to admit, if the machines in certain convenience stores statewide are no longer illegal or semi-legal, then that’s a share of law enforcement resources that can be allocated elsewhere.

David Staples

June 21st, 2010
11:31 am

AngryVoter – I have been to other states / countries that have legalized gambling, and I have no problem bringing it here. Turn the old Doraville GM plant into a resort / casino that’s right on MARTA. I’d visit it.

[...] less than a week. According to the unseen — and therefore unreliable! — narrator, the Bingo fan has worked tirelessly over the years for the [...]

chronic voter

June 21st, 2010
12:39 pm

Thurbert Baker – has a great idea. I am tired of going to Louisiana (going next month), Mississippi, Vegas and Atlantic City. I am not an abuser of gambling. I like the sport. The revenues would go through the roof. What other idea do we have to generate jobs, raise teacher salaries and a stable economy? We can’t keep shooting ourselves in the foot over this subject. Let’s get the republicans to come into the 21st century. Republicans have conferences in Vegas. They go to California strip clubs. So, why do they get so pious in their own backyards?


June 21st, 2010
3:46 pm

David Staples – Having been to 48 states and having seen gambing in many of those states, I can only pray that gambling is not brought to GA. I LOVE going to Las Vegas, Biloxi, AC and Niagara Falls, but let’s face it – that’s not what we are talking about for GA. Having machines in convenience stores, or even “casinos” that are nothing but cheap machines does more to harm a city than help. Even New Orleans didn’t do it right, and they have full-blown casinos. Cities that have nothing but machines stuck in the worst bars, laudromats, convenience stores and supermarkets see increases in crime, lack of investment to improve those areas and are generally much worse off than those that do not allow this bottom-feeder gambling.

No Thurbert

July 15th, 2010
3:34 pm

Not surprising. Thurbert Baker will do anything to win. He has changed his positions on policies so many times, you never know what you’re getting with this guy. Typical hypocrite, and he has poor judgment. With Roy Barnes, you at least know WHAT you’re getting and where he stands on the issues! Please get out and VOTE on July 20th. Roy Barnes for Governor 2010.