Politics & Government

Ford wants to bring back video poker

State Sen. Robert Ford knows how to get attention.

The Charleston Democrat's February announcement in support of vouchers to send S.C. children to private schools momentarily shut down business at the State House.

Two years before that, Ford drew national attention when, before then-presidential candidate Barack Obama's first visit to the state, Ford warned an Obama nomination would be such a loser it would drag down the rest of the Democratic ticket. (Ford later apologized at the behest of Hillary Clinton).

But as a candidate for governor, Ford finds himself scratching for attention in a crowded, well-funded field of candidates.

The centerpiece of Ford's 2010 gubernatorial bid is an attention-getter: the rebirth of the state's controversial video poker industry.

But even that controversial platform has failed to move Ford's campaign.

The state Supreme Court banned the $2.8 billion-a-year video poker industry in 1999, two weeks before voters were to decide in a state referendum whether to keep the games operating.

In July 1999, former Gov. Jim Hodges had signed a bill stipulating new taxes and tougher regulations for the games, if voters allowed video poker to continue.

Even now, Ford thinks reviving the games is key to a brighter economic future for the state, especially in paying for public schools.

The Republican-controlled Legislature recently reduced the state's reliance on property taxes to pay for schools, in favor of sales taxes - a major change that Ford says was impractical and unwise.

"Once we did that, and got rid of video poker, the state's been doomed ever since," Ford said.

South Carolina would have faced "a major depression" in its economy because of those changes, even if the national economy had not gone "belly up," beginning in late 2007, Ford said.

"So, I'm running to bring money back into this state," Ford said.

"Video poker was a major prize for South Carolina, but members of the General Assembly never had the vision to tax it like they should have and keep it," Ford said.


Ford estimates legalized video poker would generate $4 billion a year in South Carolina, create 40,000 new jobs and spin off 3,000 new businesses.

Ford would tax video poker at 25 percent of revenue, yielding about $1 billion a year in new state revenue, he said.

Of that new money, Ford said he would:

-- Give $300 million to education

-- Give $250 million to county and local governments

-- Use $100 million to stabilize state employee pay

-- Spend $70 million on infrastructure

-- Give $70 million to health care

-- Put $10 million in a rainy day fund

-- Use $50 million to build a world-class film industry in the state.

Ford says experts have told him the state could reap 100,000 new jobs by using South Carolina's natural beauty and interstate system to build a film industry here.

"It's controversial, but it's major money," Ford said. "It's major money, and it's major jobs."

Everyone is not so sure.

"You've got a lottery now," said John Rainey, chairman of the state Board of Economic Advisers. "How many games of chance can the state support? We don't know how much money the lottery already is taking out of the normal stream of commerce in this state."

Rainey, who opposes state-sponsored gambling of all sorts, closely tracks the state's economy at all levels. Without disparaging Ford's candidacy, he said simplistic answers to an ailing, complicated economy often are not constructive.

"I just challenge him to tell us how this is going to work," Rainey said.


When Ford stepped into South Carolina's ever-contentious school-choice fight earlier this year, he riled Democrats and his fellow black lawmakers. But he drew praise and support from some of his conservative white colleagues.

Three decades ago, many whites in South Carolina abandoned the public school system for segregated academies after government-forced school integration. Those memories are still a sore spot in the school-choice debate, particularly with some of those private schools now struggling.

In a series of glossy campaign fliers that he has produced, Ford says he does not plan to take any money from public schools in order to pay for education at private schools.

Instead, he targets $50 million in video poker proceeds to fund tax credits for low- and middle-income children who want to leave failing public schools.

"America's public school system is in a chaotic situation," said Ford, who is unmarried and has no children.

The New Orleans native, who adopted South Carolina as his home decades ago, says the state's demographics are no longer just two-toned.

"For years and years in South Carolina, all we had was just black and white. Now we got black, white, Asian, Spanish, we got everybody. And these people coming here now are well-educated.

"Our kids - black and white kids in the public school system -are dropping out, going to failing schools, not making the grade - and nobody cares about it.

"That's why I am running for governor: to solve the social, economic and education issues for everyday working people of this state, using video poker as a stimulus package.

"In four years of Robert Ford, we're going to see 150,000 new jobs," said Ford, 60, who is serving his fourth Senate term.


Ford faces an uphill fight on several fronts, observers say.

He has little money.

South Carolina leans heavily Republican.

And the state never has elected an African-American to a statewide office. Ford is the only African-American candidate for governor in the nine-person 2010 field.

Ford, who trained in civil rights under the late Martin Luther King Jr., also is no stranger to controversies that repel some voters.

Ford authored the 1999 bill that moved the Confederate flag off the State House dome to the monument on the capitol's north lawn. That bill also made Confederate Memorial Day and Martin Luther King Jr. holiday state holidays.

The flag compromise is unpopular with many Democrats - as are private school tax credits - and, to win, Ford has to have the support of Democratic voters in June's party primary.

Among his campaign literature is a press release, titled "Why Some Groups Haven't Contributed to Robert Ford for Governor?"

In the release, Ford laments that the special-interest groups that he says he has supported for decades - trial lawyers, the gay and lesbian community, white liberal politicians and the Democratic Party - have failed to contribute to his campaign.

Ford, who plans to advertise on billboards and radio but not television, said he can win the June primary if he has between $250,000 and $300,000 in the bank by March 2010. However, in his last campaign filing, Ford had only $21,000 on hand. Fellow Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden, in contrast, had $627,274 on hand.

"I have the best chance of winning the general election, more so than these guys, because they cannot win with the regular Democratic Party voters," Ford said.

"That's what happened with President Obama (in South Carolina). He just got the regular Democratic base. That's why he lost (the state in the November general election).

"(Former Democratic Gov. Jim) Hodges won because we went out and got the regular Democrats, and the video poker players, owners and operators, which are usually conservative Republicans.

"And that's how I'm going to win," Ford said. "I'm going to bring that constituency back to the Democratic Party."


Again, not everyone is so sure.

"Politics is not tiddlywinks," said Bruce Ransom, a Clemson University political science professor. "He has taken some controversial positions that might not be so popular.

"Gambling, for instance, might not be the issue to put out there in terms of an issue to ride."

Education reform, however, is an issue that, if properly crafted from a fresh perspective, could attract attention and find traction for Ford, Ransom said.

Democrats in South Carolina have their best successes, Ransom said, when the Republican Party is in disarray and the Democratic candidate is able to combine a moderate-to-conservative platform with like-minded supporters.

Absent that, a successful Democrat must have a strong persona, like President Obama wielded in 2008, and the ability to bring in new voters and - rhetoric aside - raise money.

"I don't see that happening," Ransom said of Ford's campaign. "If it were, even though we say it's still early, I think we would see some signs of it."