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.