I see the same billboards you do all the time, featuring 30-foot-high depictions of this or that well-adjusted citizen who’s won an unfathomable amount of money playing games in Shorter or Tunica or Eutaw or Dothan.
It’d be effective advertising if I could imagine myself in the picture brandishing that check, but I can’t, because I can’t first imagine spending any of my time in the aforementioned metropolises. I mean, life is short enough already without spending it in Shorter.
As is often the case in a puritanical society, there’s a lot of hypocrisy about sin, and here in Alabama, Public Sin Number One is clearly gambling, outpointing bootlegging and adultery by a country mile. Preachers and governors inveigh mightily against it, while churches and legislators try to help the sin go legit. The civic discourse has become so convoluted that we’ve forgotten whether the moral stance on gambling is to be for it or against it.
Actually, there is some clarity available: if we could get the same odds Larry Langford gets when he visits a gaming establishment, there’d be no discernible opposition to legalized gambling.
According to a fascinating lawsuit filed last September, one Sandra Howard happened to be playing bingo in Quincy’s 777 Casino at Victoryland in Macon County the very same August day that one Larry P. Langford was disporting himself similarly. The difference was that Howard won diddly and Langford won sums of money exceeding 50 large after, said the lawsuit, being escorted to specific machines by helpful casino employees.
A canvass of the former mayor’s state tax records pertinent to this lawsuit has shed some more light on the allegations. Now we’ve learned (thank you, Mike Tomberlin of The Birmingham News for laying this out) that Larry did not share my views on life and Shorter. According to the new scoop, the mayor spent a lot of time at Victoryland, and profitably, too: between 2006 and 2008, he won 521 jackpots exceeding $1,500,000.
Let us put this into terms that four-leaf clover collectors can comprehend. In 2008, the former mayor is said to have dropped into Quincy’s 777 24 times, whereupon the machines he was playing paid off big 275 times, to the tune of $729,350.61.
The tune should really be Emerson Lake and Palmer’s; ooo, what a lucky man he was, for that averages out to around eleven jackpots a night, which means either that Larry Langford is the seventh son of a seventh son or that Victoryland’s machines are looser than a Kardashian at an open bar.
How many hours would you have to sit bleary-eyed in front of the bingo screen to hit one jackpot of only $1,000, let alone eleven jackpots up to $27,000 each? No wonder Langford was always so optimistic and so blissfully unconcerned about running up municipal deficits. In his world, money could magically appear at any time.
It was magic, wasn’t it? He was lucky, wasn’t he? Because we’d hate to think that Milton McGregor, one of Larry Langford’s mentors and patrons, could arrange to have gaming machines under his purview rigged to pay off when a particular person played them.
Milton has shown himself adept at changing the course of Alabama history. Besides beating the civic odds to plant legalized gambling in the Black Belt, where it has reaped a rich harvest, he has been stalwart in his efforts to make it legal statewide.
McGregor’s boldest play of late was to pull a page out of Sam Spade’s playbook, hiring a private dick to shadow the former Jefferson County district attorney, David Barber. The gumshoe tailed him to a Mississippi casino, where Barber won more than two grand. No big deal, except that Barber was the acting czar of Governor Riley’s task force on illegal gambling, the point man for social conservatives anxious to put the kibosh on all manner of gaming in the state.
It’s hard to clamp down in Alabama when you’re doubling down in Mississippi.
Meanwhile, there’s a new sheriff in town. Another county D.A., John Tyson, Jr. of Mobile, has taken over the task force and aims to shut down the giant Country Crossing gambling complex in Dothan because their bingo machines don’t really play bingo. It’d be real Eliot Ness of him had Tyson not been previously the recipient of political contributions from PACs funded by, wait for it, gambling interests. Pish and tush, says Tyson, stating, "If crooks could get rid of a prosecutor or a judge by simply giving to a campaign, then no crook would ever be prosecuted.”
Note to would-be moralists: put your glass houses on the market right away.
There’s another reason I’m no fan of gambling. I happen to think it’s a toxic industry that preys upon the poor, and that having a casino in your town is only slightly less repellent than trucking coal ash into your local landfill. I don’t agree with gubernatorial candidates who claim legalizing gambling will bring boom times to the state; Mississippi passed its Gaming Control Act in 1990 and it’s still the same festering sinkhole it always was. As for controlling gaming, there’s nary an enforceable statute that’ll keep organized crime out of casinos if it decides it wants to set up shop there.
However, state legislator Scott Beason, a hard-shell Baptist from Gardendale, has introduced legislation for a referendum on whether or not to outlaw gambling of every kind in Alabama. I think we should call his bluff and pass that bill. The ensuing electoral chaos would make for the wildest campaign in memory.
Would the moral folk of Alabama actually vote to legalize gambling? You bet. Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.