Let the silly season begin

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With the legislative sessions concluded in most states in the Southeast, all politicians are turning their eyes from policy-making to playing politics. For those who follow gambling legislation, it means it’s time to open the wallets and watch the polling so we can wager on whom will be the elected leaders after the dust of the 2010 elections settle.

For the regular Ante Up reader, you’re used to reading about politicians’ decisions as they affect your livelihood at the tables, whether you’re a player or a gaming employee. Over the next few issues I’ll try to give you an informed look at some of the critical political races that will affect gaming policy in The South. This month I’ll look at Florida and Alabama.

Florida

The Sunshine State is off to a political year of historic proportions. Its U.S. Senate seat has become the talk of national politics, the entire Cabinet, including the Governor’s Mansion, is up for grabs, and the Florida Legislature will select a new House speaker and Senate president after the 2010 elections. Here’s my quick thumbnail on these key statewide races affecting the gambling industry to help you pick your candidate in the primary elections in August and the general elections in November.

U.S. SENATE: Our gambling-loving Gov. Charlie Crist has left the Republican Party and is an independent due to the juggernaut candidacy of right-wing-poster-boy and former House speaker Marco Rubio. On the Democrat side, eccentric billionaire Jeff Greene is facing popular congressman Kendrick Meek. Here’s how it shakes out for the gambling industry: Crist gave Florida table games, no-limit poker, extended hours and viable parimutuel casinos; Rubio is anti-gambling; Meek always has been a friend to the parimutuel industry and supported gambling legislation when he was in the Florida Legislature. My picks: Go with Meek and Crist.

GOVERNOR: The Republican primary has attorney general Bill McCollum running against Rick Scott, the former CEO of healthcare conglomerate Columbia/HCA. McCollum has not been a big gambling advocate but has been fair to the industry over the years. Scott, with a war chest of nine figures, is staking out the far right.

Despite reports of him being ousted from the company amid a federal investigation that resulted in a record $1.7 billion in fines as part of a settlement over fraudulent healthcare billing, Scott plans on pumping around $30 million into his bid for governor.

The winner will face the Democrat Alex Sink, the state’s CFO. The son of former Gov. Lawton Chiles, Bud, is running as an independent. Neither has a background relative to the gambling industry. My picks: Go with McCollum unless more information comes out about the positions of Sink and Chiles relative to the industry.

ATTORNEY GENERAL: This race is wide open. Two Democrats and three Republicans have no significant political base. On the Democratic side, two state senators from South Florida battle for the job. Sen. Dave Aronberg from Palm Beach County boasts one of the largest and most diverse Senate districts in the state. His district runs from coast to coast, starting in Palm Beach and ending in the Gulf of Mexico.

He’s running as the more experienced candidate having served in the attorney general’s office before his election. He’s an active poker player and has been a real hero to the industry during his tenure in the Senate. His opponent, Miami Beach senator Dan Gelber, has been hopping around political races looking for the next step on his political ladder (state senate to U.S. Senate to attorney general in fewer than seven months).

Gelber has never been a player on gambling issues and has little support in the industry. On the Republican side, Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp is facing Tampa prosecutor Pam Biondi and former gambling regulator and state legislator Holly Benson.

The choice is pretty clear here: Aronberg and Benson. You can’t go wrong with either as they are probably the most knowledgeable people in the State when it comes to the gambling industry and the needs of players and operators.

Alabama

In this state everything comes down to one race. Since the state Supreme Court has ruled the governor is in charge of the statewide enforcement of the gambling laws, the industry is looking toward November when Gov. Bob Riley’s term ends and a new governor charts the state’s course on gambling policy.

GOVERNOR: The Democrats have completed their primary election and have selected Commissioner of Agriculture Ron Sparks. He’s heavily supported by the state’s gambling industry and has publicly supported the legalization and regulation of “Las Vegas-style” gambling in Alabama.

On the Republican side, a run-off will occur in mid July between Christian conservatives Bradley Byrne and Robert Bentley. Both are against any form of gambling expansion. Bentley is taking a more civil libertarian approach, stating he will support the will of the people and their ability to decide the issue of gambling expansion at the ballot box. For those interested in seeing Alabama join the ranks of the nation’s gambling states, you have but a single choice: Sparks.

Money and grassroots will decide these elections. If you find yourself motivated to get involved, reach out to the campaigns; all have websites through which you can volunteer and make financial contributions.

Find your favorite candidate, spread the word and by all means, vote. You can’t complain at the poker table about the politicians if you didn’t do your civic duty or try to make a difference. Consider yourself an informed voter now and do your part to make sure you have a policy-maker in office that shares your views.

— Marc W. Dunbar is a shareholder with Tallahassee law firm Pennington, Moore, Wilkinson, Bell & Dunbar, P.A.  He represents several gaming clients before the Florida Legislature and teaches gambling and parimutuel law at the Florida State University College of Law.