Originally created 05/17/99

Video poker underscores differences



AIKEN -- It's an easy drive between the walled grounds of Greg Ryberg's gray two-story house in Aiken to Tommy Moore's ranch-style brick, easily visible from a Clearwater street.

But Aiken County's two resident senators often appear poles apart -- especially when it comes to the video poker parlors dotting the route between their homes.

THEIR DIFFERENCES WERE underscored earlier this month when Mr. Ryberg, the Republican, participated in contentious filibusters to keep players from winning more than $125 a day, the current state law. At the same time Mr. Moore, the Democrat, was seeking a middle ground between extreme factions that until then had agreed only to disagree.

Mr. Moore and Mr. Ryberg differ sharply on whether the resulting bill, passed by the Senate and rewritten by the House, should be called a compromise.

But that's no surprise. They differ in most respects -- differences that reach beyond their opposing political parties and ranging from matters as trivial as taste in socks to fundamental ones like religious faith.

Mr. Ryberg's socks are expensive and often patterned. Mr. Moore's match, and he's not picky about where he buys them. Mr. Ryberg is Roman Catholic; Mr. Moore, Congregational Holiness. What they have in common is the Senate, and they do not hang out together outside that chamber.

Mr. Ryberg plays golf and does his best thinking as he runs and exercises. Mr. Moore prefers hunting, fishing, canoeing and hiking, and he does his best thinking behind a push mower or in his vegetable garden.

THEIR BACKGROUNDS ARE diverse. Mr. Ryberg, 52, was born and reared in Wisconsin. He graduated from prestigious Marquette, worked for Kimberly-Clark in Neenah, Wis., then signed on with Sanford, a company that makes felt-tip pens. Less than a decade out of college, he was able to buy into a small company in South Carolina and moved to Aiken in 1977. Today, R&H Maxxon owns and operates Depot convenience stores in South Carolina and Georgia.

Mr. Moore, 49, was born in Aiken and reared in a local mill village. He graduated from the University of South Carolina's Aiken campus, working his way through college by fixing industrial boilers. In 1978 he formed his own a company, Boiler Efficiency, that installs, maintains and repairs steam power systems.

Mr. Ryberg sometimes has a confrontational style that some colleagues attribute to being from outside the South. A few occasionally refer to him -- unfairly -- as "the senator from Wisconsin." Mr. Moore is more quietly forceful in public, but he is said to be blunt behind closed doors.

The volatile issue of video poker underscores those differences. Of the two, Mr. Ryberg has held the more visible role as a poker foe since he was elected to the Senate in 1992, first trying to ban it outright, then pushing for a referendum this year. He is among Republicans who don't want it on the ballot in a general elections year, influencing the heavily bankrolled industry to pour money into Democrats' campaigns, as it did to oust Republican Gov. David Beasley last year.

BUT MR. MOORE'S emergence as a central figure in the debate is no surprise to people who know him best. In 21 years in the Senate, he has acquired a reputation for peacemaking on conference committees that reconcile opposing views on legislation.

And last year in speeches to local leaders in his district, Mr. Moore said he personally opposes video poker but would attempt a compromise if it could not be banned.

"What I admire about Tommy Moore professionally is that he is willing sometimes in the state's best interest to sacrifice what may be politically popular at home," said Billy Boan, former Republican House member who's now the Democratic governor's liaison with lawmakers.

"I think it would be wrong to characterize him and Senator Ryberg as being poles apart on this issue," Mr. Boan said. "I suspect that when there is a referendum on video poker, Tommy Moore is going to vote no. But he recognizes that until that time comes, we are losing time that we could be regulating and taxing this industry. He saw that neither extreme was going to get a majority and had the strength politically to find a compromise that the Senate would buy."

MR. RYBERG IS proud of being extreme on the issue. He began yanking video poker machines from the Depot chain in 1991, although some of his opponents in the Republican primary claimed he did it to boost his shot for the Senate in a district where poker was a hot topic. At least one contended that some machines remained during the campaign. There are no poker machines in Depot stores now.

As the senator tells it, he often saw a mechanic from a friend's garage playing poker in Depot stores. He later heard that the man was fired for stealing tools from the shop to sell for video poker cash, Mr. Ryberg says.

He got rid of the machines because he didn't want people stealing from his neighbors to put money in them, he says. On request, the senator will produce letters from people saying their families were destroyed by addiction to the video games and encouraging him to keep fighting.

"I know that every member of the General Assembly must get letters like this," he said. "So tell me how they can ignore that people's lives are being devastated."

MR. BOAN SAID Mr. Ryberg is one of a handful of lawmakers who can accurately be called "anti-poker."

"He is one of the more rigid," he said, "but if you added the legitimate pros and antis, I doubt you'd have a majority of the Legislature. It's not a simple black-and-white issue, and most people are somewhere in the middle."

Mr. Moore does not like to emphasize his differences with Mr. Ryberg, saying they have voted alike on economic development and numerous local matters. Both are characterized as pro-life by the South Carolina Citizens for Life lobby.

Both men are long married with grown children, who graduated from public schools in Aiken County, although Mr. Ryberg's attended St. Mary Help of Christians school first. Both are often described as good-looking -- Mr. Ryberg with his handlebar moustache in a dapper way and Mr. Moore more ruggedly.

Mr. Moore also did not mention Mr. Ryberg's name in his letter, which said, "While many in this debate tried to hold the Senate hostage to score political points with certain constituents, I sought to find common-sense solutions ..."

Mr. Ryberg said he never dwells on his differences with Mr. Moore either, "but it would be fair to say we don't think alike. Once I'm committed to an issue, I don't back down. I stay the course."

He said the Moore bill did back down from the idea of video poker as entertainment, not wholesale gambling.

It's not clear where the Moore bill is headed. It passed the Senate on a voice vote since tallied at 30-13. It set a winnings limit of $900 per game until voters decide in November 2000 whether to ban poker. The House of Representatives won't take a final vote until next week but passed an amendment Thursday that keeps a daily cap of $125 on winnings and sets a referendum this fall.

House Speaker David Wilkins touted the plan, which also sets a tax 10 percent higher than Moore's bill and a bet limit that's $1 lower per hand. It requires extensive records like a federal judge imposed on five big poker barons, limits growth and advertising, and mandates background checks of operators.

"These are real regulations that crack down on this out-of-control industry," Mr. Wilkins said, suggesting Mr. Moore's regulations amount to none at all, although supporters describe them as the strongest in the nation.

In a letter to colleagues last week Mr. Moore urged them to "rise above the rhetoric" with him and end their stalemate.

Gov. Jim Hodges threatens to call a special session if the issue is not resolved before the regular session ends June 1.

They can "plan to do their Christmas shopping in Columbia" if they haven't broken the logjam by then, he said.

For some lawmakers and some citizens, breaking the logjam would mean buckling under to the video poker industry, however.

EDGEFIELD MAYOR JOHN Pettigrew Jr., who ran a tough race against Mr. Moore in 1988, said he's urged both Aiken resident senators to get rid of video poker, on his own and as a deacon at Edgefield's First Baptist Church.

Edgefield was one of 34 counties that voted in 1994 to permit video poker. Aiken was one of 12 that voted not to allow it, but the Supreme Court later ruled that a law could not be applied differently in different counties.

"Now that we have seen the harm it does to so many lives, I think Edgefield would vote against video poker now," Mr. Pettigrew said.

"Last week I bumped into Greg Ryberg... and told him to keep up the good fight. I asked him about Tommy Moore and he told me that was a lost cause -- Tommy was taking up the cause of the poker industry."

Mr. Moore's pastor at Christian Heritage Church, the Rev. Dennis Phillips, disagreed.

"I have talked with the senator many times, and he has always been opposed to video poker," he said. "I have no reason to think that his view has changed, and I know that he is doing what he thinks is right."

Ryberg supporters say the same about him.

Margaret N. O'Shea can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.