Originally created 08/27/99

Moral opposition



BEECH ISLAND -- Like most grassroots movements, it's starting small, but organizers were not unhappy Thursday with their first meeting to drum up votes against video poker.

About 50 people gathered in the historic Beech Island First Baptist Church to pick up voter registration forms and find out what they can do to get out the vote Nov. 2. That's when South Carolinians will decide whether to keep video gambling legal.

The white church on a wooded road is not far from Interstate 20 and a cluster of casinos and poker parlors that give rustic Beech Island the heaviest concentration of gambling machines in Aiken and Edgefield counties.

The gathering was organized by paper mill worker Gregg Gregory, who narrowly lost a bid for county council last year, and his friend, David Towles, who handles marketing and public relations for an Augusta sperm bank. And both said the first meeting in a planned series accomplished what it was meant to do.

"If you go back to your church and get out the vote or talk to people on your street in your neighborhood, you are helping to get rid of video poker," Mr. Gregory said.

Before the referendum occurs, anti-poker forces want to fill a high school football stadium with Aiken County residents who are working up to the last minute to get more votes of no.

Most people in the crowd Thursday were ordinary folks, but the group picked up some unusual help to spread their message. Mel Cobb of Aiken, chaplain of the Christian Motorcyclists Association, said he's committed to the cause. And Ray Sisk, chaplain of I-20 for Jesus, was there because he'd circled the wrong date on his calendar and thought he was scheduled to speak to the Baptist Brotherhood on Thursday night.

He lives in Appling and can't vote in the South Carolina referendum. But he gives gospel tapes and tracts to lots of truckers who can.

"I know what gambling can do, and I know what God can do," he said.

State Rep. Roland Smith, R-Langley, urged the group not to limit their cause by making it a Christian mission. "There are lots of good people who are not Christians, but they have seen that video poker is not good for South Carolina. We need their support and their votes."

In a fiery speech about gambling, he said it has a stranglehold on South Carolina and is choking the poor.

"This is taking money from the pockets of the poor and putting it in the pockets of a few rich people," he said. "The rich are not going to risk what they have putting it in those machines in the hope of getting rich. It's the poor who are desperate. But the only people who are going to strike it rich are the kingpins who own the machines."

The video gambling industry will spend millions to influence the November vote, he said. The lawmaker predicted a barrage of billboards, television and newspaper ads to convince voters that poker will pay for education, lower taxes and keep the owners of mom-and-pop stores out of the poorhouse.

"They will say we are trying to legislate morality," Mr. Smith said. "This is not about morality. It is about the right to choose. And the most important choice we have to make is at the polls Nov. 2. It's the choice to get video poker out of our communities."

Mr. Gregory said his opposition solidified in a single evening. He'd stopped for gas at a convenience store and saw a man playing poker while his children played on the floor beside the machine. About five hours later, he went back for a gallon of milk and saw the man still playing, he said.

"One kid was asleep on the floor, and the other one had fallen asleep on top of some bags of dog food," he said.

In that moment, he knew that video poker was legal but not right, he said.

"We can't just stand by and look at what is happening to families, what's happening to our state, and not try to do something about it."

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