By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY: The history of gaming in Macon County, Alabama, began in earnest in 1984 with the opening of VictoryLand. Over nearly three decades, gaming in that county has taken some dramatic turns, none more so than in 2003.
“Bingo is taking place at the Macon County dog track and was the subject of an attorney general’s investigation. Bingo is an elusive term and the operations in Macon County are unlimited gambling to the benefit of gambling interests, not to charity. Since it is itself a constitutional amendment, it cannot be challenged as an unlawful form of gambling.”
This is a statement by A. Eric Johnson, under the heading Charitable Bingo, A Sin Whose Time Has Come; which was as part of a fundraising letter he decimated in December, 2004.
Johnson, is perhaps the best known anti-gambling figures in the state, representing groups such as Citizens for a Better Alabama.
Johnson, was addressing his dire concerns over a Macon County constitutional amendment that allowed Bingo in any form. It was a 2003 constitutional amendment that change everything about gaming in that county.
The road to the constitutional amendment began in a town hall meeting in the historic courthouse in Tuskegee, Alabama. At center stage was Johnny Ford who was serving as State Representative from Macon County at the time.
“I was holding a town hall meeting in Tuskegee to explain and get input on my agenda for the upcoming legislative session, when a veteran” Robert Freeman, said, “Mr. Representative, we are tired of having to go to Mississippi to play bingo. We want to play bingo in Macon County.”
Years before Macon County had bingo but it has ceased to be available.
Ford said as his habit was, he called for a vote, “The people voted and they said they wanted bingo, so I put that on my agenda.”
Ford says that at the time Milton McGregor, owner of VictoryLand dog track, was against bingo for Macon County but that as a legislator he had to represent all of the people, so, bringing Bingo back became a priority.
According to Ford, “I put together a bill that would allow Bingo in any form to be played in Macon County.”
This pre-filed bill for the 2003 legislative session would be a big surprise for anti-gambling advocates, a cause for great consternation to many and a sly but masterful stroke of political maneuvering by Ford.
In 2003, something else took place that would surprise many in the state and country.
In 2003, Ford, a life long democrat, switched to the Republican Party. In a February 2003, in an article from Jet magazine, Ford is quoted as saying, “This is not a sellout and I’m not forgetting my roots, I see this as an opportunity to work from within the Republican Party to bring about change and accomplish goals.”
Ford did accomplish a great deal during his brief tenure with the GOP, which to some was greatly unexpected.
“During that year’s legislative session there were three bills introduced concerning gaming in Macon County. One said, bingo in any form, the second was a watered down version of the first and the third was a bill that would have allowed [Las Vegas style] table games as well as bingo,” said Ford.
According to a report by By Sondra Washington, in The Alabama Baptist, Gambling opponents and supporters worked together to make the bill suitable for both sides.
But in what some gambling opponents call a “sneaky” last-minute move, the bill’s sponsor, former Rep. Johnny Ford of Tuskegee, submitted a new bill. Only a few words were changed, yet the bill legalized a new form of electronic gambling in the state.
Ford seems to remember his political gamesmanship with some pride, “While the representatives who were against Bingo in anyway were concentrating on my harmless bill, my Bingo in any form bill passed,” said Ford.
Ford’s bill, HB 660, which passed the state Legislature on June 11, 2003, “brought electronic bingo to Alabama,” according to Ford.
In November of 2003, the Constitutional Amendment authorizing bingo in any form in Macon County was passed by an overwhelming majority.
“The citizens of Macon County knew before they voted on the Constitutional Amendment, that they were voting on electronic bingo, in any form, cards or electronic,” said Ford.
Ford said he became disenchanted with Riley after he fought against the Macon County amendment and returned to the Democratic Party.
While other counties in Alabama have amendments that allows some forms of Bingo, Ford says, “Bottom line is Greene County and Macon County are the two counties in Alabama that have a constitutional right to have electronic bingo.”
Ford challenges the idea that Attorney General Luther Strange has any right to hinder the gaming operations in Macon or Greene Counties.
“So, when Luther Strange says he closed gaming in Lowndes County and he will close it else where then he needs to understand the difference in the law,” said Ford.
He also points out that “Greene county has been operating electronic bingo for the last two years and Luther Strange has not said a word.”
Ford says he is prepared to fight anyone who challenges Macon County’s economic future. Ford sees this as a battle for self determination by a free people, “this is about jobs, education, civil rights and economic rights.”