Bob Wright wasn’t there to shuffle cards or spin the wheel. He was there to share a civics lesson while dropping the names of Lincoln and Roosevelt and begging for a seat at the table. By the time it was over, the lanky millionaire and members of Columbus Council were wrapped in the very same flag and Pharaoh had decided to let his people vote.
Late arrivals who expected to hear rants about the evils of gambling and the sinful lure of neon-lit casinos were disappointed for Tuesday night’s council meeting was free of sermonizing and the tragedy that comes before a runaway gambler takes those 12 wonderful steps to freedom.
This was an event crafted by a voice from the city’s past, a vocal rabble-rouser who trimmed his Afro and joined the establishment becoming, of all things, a Republican. Wright served three terms on this same council when Councilor Gary Allen’s father — the late J.R. Allen — was mayor. This was a time when the police chief offered Wright his police revolver after threats were made on the council member’s life.
Wright, 78, reminded councilors of the past and his active participation in it while younger leaders talked about the future. He was one of five on the public agenda who spoke — not about gambling but about voting.
It was a program so well crafted that a Baptist preacher was able to participate and, in his 10 minutes, the Rev. Ralph Huling never used the word casino. “I’m here because I believe people should have a choice,” said Huling, the leadoff speaker. “Citizens of Muscogee County deserve a vote.”
Attorney Teddy Reese said, “Make sure individual voices are heard. Let people speak for themselves.” Then came attorney Stacey Jackson, who said people should be the ultimate authority. Attorney Katonga Wright — Bob Wright’s niece — said fences could be mended. “Reasonable minds can sit down at the table together,” she added.
But the night belonged to Dr. Robert L. Wright Jr., as comfortable on the national stage as he is at home. He recognized that critics were present and said there is nothing that can’t be worked out. In the hallway outside council chambers, Wright started a dialogue with Norm Easterbrook, executive director of the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts, and Paul Pierce, artistic director of the Springer Theater. He promised there would be other talks in the future.
The arts community is concerned that the local entertainment industry would be damaged by the number of acts that appear at the casino. Many in the hospitality industry share that same fear. Easterbrook said a statewide coalition has hired an outside firm to answer those questions by researching the impact on the arts in communities where casinos have been built.
Wright has been pushing council to include support of a vote of a constitutional amendment that would legalize casino gambling in Georgia. He and the other speakers were careful to talk nice about the referendum — not legalized gambling.
But if other cities want a casino, he said, Columbus should not be left out if that is what the people want. “Columbus should not be left out of the game like it was the Interstate Highway system.”
The discussion Tuesday was about whether to include support for a referendum on council’s annual pre-legislative wish list. “Whether it passes or fails, that is up to citizens,” City Manager Isaiah Hugley said.
Once it got to the floor, most council members wanted to be heard.
Councilor Glenn Davis said he thought the discussion was premature. “I don’t know what kind of casino,” he said. “I don’t know if Columbus will even get a casino.”
Freshman Councilor Walker Garrett thought the city should act “because we need a seat at the table.” To do that, Councilor Judy Thomas said council should talk with local legislators “and we haven’t done that.”
Councilor Skip Henderson said he couldn’t decide now because he didn’t know what the bill would include and Wright reminded him “We can’t say how the sausage will be made.”
Wright said talk has revolved around having casinos in four Georgia cities: Atlanta, Savannah, Augusta and Columbus. “But if we can’t get Columbus to the table, I don’t know if that would happen.”
To settle some of the concerns, Councilor Gary Allen suggested an amendment to the proposed agenda item. He called for a statewide vote and then a local vote.
“That’s fair,” Wright said.
Allen offered this caveat. “The vote tonight does not support casino gambling,” he said, “only the right to vote.”
The amended version passed 7-2. Davis and Councilor Mike Baker voted no and Councilor Mimi Woodson — a co-sponsor with Mayor Pro Tem Evelyn Turner Pugh — was absent.
A Resort in South Columbus
With that decision, the call for a referendum will be included on council’s annual pre-legislative agenda, which will be presented to local legislators at a meeting on Thursday.
As of now, no casino legislation has been introduced for the 2017 General Assembly. A year ago, there were 11 proposals but not one of them made it to the floor of the House or Senate.
That the casino industry — particularly MGM Resorts — wants to do business in Georgia is no secret. A small group of lobbyists were hired last year and more are on the way for the upcoming session.
To entice support, promises that proceeds from the casino industry would go to the HOPE Scholarship Fund have been made. This is identical to strategy used in 1992 when voters were asked to approve a statewide lottery. Lottery proceeds went to the scholarship program for high school seniors, to a statewide Pre-K program and to technology in schools.
That combination worked for Gov. Zell Miller who overcame strong opposition — including the Methodist Church of which he was a member. That same level of opposition will likely mobilize if legislation is passed in 2017.
The public involvement of Wright and State Rep. Calvin Smyre — the senior member of the Georgia House of Representatives — shows a renewed commitment from casino supporters. They have been lobbying Columbus Council and the strategy used Tuesday evening was masterful. If they had brought a proposal built around casinos to the table, they probably would have failed. By presenting a proposal that would not inspire the usual arguments against gambling they enabled council members to cast a vote no matter what their convictions were.
When you’re supporting a gambling casino and you have a Baptist preacher on your team, people notice. And the value of a high-profile businessman like Wright can’t be measured. He wants one of the casino resorts in South Columbus and with decades of promoting South Columbus behind him, he speaks with authority about the impact a casino would have on that part of the community.
“South Columbus needs to be part of Columbus,” he said. “We need a hotel and we need restaurants so that we can take our families to eat. Right now, all we have are McDonald’s, Burger King and Bojangles.”
Meeting members of the press after the meeting on Tuesday, Wright offered a shield to the members of council who supported him. “They didn’t vote to support casinos,” he said. “They supported our right to vote.”