Obama Demurs on Alabama Voting-Rights Case in Bingo War

President Barack Obama’s administration has declined to help Tuskegee and the rest of a majority-black Alabama county get the same economic opportunity from gambling as an Indian tribe in the state.

The administration has stayed out of a federal voting rights lawsuit challenging Alabama’s closing of Macon County’s electronic bingo facility, even as it backed the Poarch Band of Creek Indians when the state went after its casinos.

The Obama administration has sought to boost tribal economies by expanding Indian gaming. Macon County officials have asked in vain for the same help, after more than 2,000 jobs were lost when the state raided and closed a casino that the county’s voters had approved in a 2003 referendum.

“If you have done it for the Indians, you ought to do it for the rest of us,” Tuskegee Mayor Johnny Ford said in an interview in his office.

Both Ford and the tribe say the casinos offer electronic bingo. State Attorney General Luther Strange contends that the machines are really slots, which are illegal in Alabama.

Ford, joined in the lawsuit by the local chapter of the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil-rights organization, Macon County officials and other community leaders, gave notice on Jan. 21 that they were taking the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta. The previous month, a lower-court judge in Montgomery, Alabama, dismissed it as “objectively frivolous” and ordered Ford’s side to pay the state’s legal fees.

Rosa Parks

“We have just begun to fight,” said Ford, whose city is the birthplace of Rosa Parks, the woman whose refusal to give up her seat on a public bus in Montgomery was a seminal moment in the civil-rights movement.

Tuskegee is struggling with poverty averaging almost 32 percent from 2008 to 2012, compared with 18 percent statewide, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The poverty rate in surrounding Macon County was 28 percent.

With a black population of almost 96 percent, Tuskegee is also the site of a 40-year federal government study of syphilis that culminated in payment of $10 million because black men infected with the disease weren’t properly treated.

Benard Simelton, president of the NAACP’s Alabama state conference, says the state’s closing of a betting facility approved at the ballot box was another blow to minorities who have already seen their rights eroded by actions such as voter-identification laws.

Old Fight

“That’s what we fought for in the ’60s, to get a strong voting-rights law on the books to prevent jurisdictions from preventing African-Americans from voting,” Simelton said. “This is essentially the same thing. People have voted for it but they’re saying, ‘No, you can’t have it even though you voted for it.’ The state is trying to turn back the clock.”

Strange and Alabama Governor Robert Bentley are accused in Ford’s lawsuit of “the suppression and negation of lawfully cast votes” by closing the casino, which at its peak employed 2,300 people, raised money for 60 area charities, and offered a buffet, a steakhouse and a 10-story hotel.

Strange called the lawsuit “a legally frivolous publicity stunt.”

The attorney general won the first round. On Dec. 23, U.S. District Judge W. Keith Watkins in Montgomery said the suit was “objectively frivolous” and dismissed it.

“Plaintiffs do not cite any authority to support their position that an inability to operate electronic bingo or work at an electronic bingo casino is based on an interest that the federal voting-rights laws protect,” wrote Watkins, who was nominated for the judgeship by President George W. Bush.

The Obama administration has resisted entreaties to intervene in the Tuskegee case even as it filed a court brief supporting the Poarch against state efforts to close their casinos.

‘Grossly Mistreated’

The Tuskegee suit was filed in June after Strange raided VictoryLand, a dog track 24 miles (39 kilometers) east of the state capital, which added electronic bingo machines after the 2003 referendum.

In an Aug. 14 letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, with a copy sent to Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, Ford acknowledged that Native Americans “were robbed of their land and grossly mistreated.” However, “their suffering does not historically surpass that of African-Americans,” he wrote.

If the Justice Department could back the Indians, it also “should intervene in our lawsuit, or be guilty of a clear case of discrimination,” Ford wrote. If the agency “can use our tax dollars to help the Indians, then it can help the poor black and white citizens of Macon County.”

A White House spokesman, Matthew Lehrich, referred queries to the Justice Department. A spokeswoman there, Dena Iverson, declined to comment.

Indian Case

In the lawsuit involving the Poarch, the Obama administration backed the tribe’s contention that it offers bingo, not slots. Federal regulations say bingo is played against others, whether on machines that look and play like slots or with cards, plastic discs and a caller. A slots player competes against the machine itself.

“We’ve always said what we do is legal under federal law,” said Robbie McGhee, who runs the Poarch Creek government-relations office. “This is sovereign land. We can’t tax so this is what we have to do to raise our revenue.”

Indian groups have noticed Obama’s efforts to alleviate poverty on tribal lands. Tribal governments donated $2.5 million to Obama and aligned Democratic Party committees for his 2012 re-election, compared with less than $500,000 to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and associated groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group that tracks campaign donations.

Justice Preapproval

The Tuskegee lawsuit centers on whether state officials illegally overturned the referendum, after the Justice Department gave preapproval to let the vote proceed.

Such preapproval was required under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which was struck down in June by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Republican-appointed majority.

In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited a proposed 2010 Alabama referendum to specifically address electronic bingo, calling state Republicans’ language “shocking” as they talked “openly of their aim to quash” a vote on the measure “out of concern it would increase black turnout.” The legislature never submitted the referendum to the voters.

“It’s not about gaming,” said Ford. “It’s about voting rights. It’s about equality. It’s about justice.”

The case is Ford v. Strange, 13-cv-00214, U.S. District Court, Middle District of Alabama (Montgomery).

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan D. Salant in Washington at jsalant@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net

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