I showed up early for Monday's South Carolina Senate subcommittee hearing. Up for debate and public input were two bills that would effectively make legal home poker games and charitable raffles.
South Carolina is one of two states in the country that bars raffles (thanks to Utah for making us seem less antiquated and ridiculous). The Palmetto State also makes any game with cards or dice illegal (read: poker, Monopoly, bridge) etc.
With that in mind, you might expect the decriminalization hearing on the 200 year old law to be ridiculous. You would be right, you just don't know how right you are. By the end of it, I was so frustrated I couldn't even speak clearly.
So, after the jump, I grade the major players' effectiveness (Note: this is for more than South Carolina poker players, as the national Poker Players Alliance had big role in the hearing).
Poker Players Alliance: The PPA, the most legitimate of all the poker advocacy groups in America, has spent a great deal of time and effort in South Carolina recently. It supported the Mt. Pleasant Five in a February trial (see your April issue of Bluff Magazine for my article on the subject) and has been exceptionally vocal about legislative efforts here.
The PPA surprised me by pulling on board one the state's most respected legal minds. Billy Wilkins, former chief judge of the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, spoke on behalf of the PPA. While Wilkins could've been briefed a little better on the subject matter, he was expectedly well-spoken. It was was a coup for poker players to have Wilkins on their side. I would never have guessed the poker industry could've pulled such a big name from the local pool. The PPA also did a great job of rallying the troops to the meeting. Its online outreach was hard to miss.
All of that said, the PPA still has some issues it need to address if it wants to be a serious force. It could have done a much better job lining up and briefing people who planned to testify. One of the better parts of organizing grass roots efforts like this is making sure your people are all on the same page and are well-educated on the subject matter. The PPA needs people who know how to do more than send out e-mails. It needs to be pushing hard in the media, rallying larger groups of people, and educating the masses. A media campaign couldn't hurt either.
Finally, the PPA's social media strategy was either badly conceived or badly executed. Here are a few examples of the Twitter messages sent out to more than 1,200 Twitter followers during the meeting.
"at the Greenville NC poker hearing which just started."
"Greenville, opposition just said that no one has every been arrested for playn poker n SC! Read the paper much?"
"Greenville, opposition sweating bullets right now."
"opposition doesn't support charities that save lives w/ funds received from raffles."
"opposition does not support the burn center thats supported by charity events."
"Franky's Fun Park is full of games of skill not chance! LOL"
"opposition doesn't support personal responsibility. "
"opp doesn't support Sheriners."
"looks like were rapping up."
There were a ton more like that. From misstating where we were geopgraphically, to rampant spelling mistakes, to out-of-context immaturity, the Twitter feed was embarrassing. I couldn't figure out who was sending the messages. He might be a really good guy, but he needs a better understanding of both social media and reasonable, mature ways to win hearts and minds. If the Twitter feed was the PPA's only voice, I would not associate myself with the group. Said B.J. Nemeth, top poker writer, "These tweets sound absurd. You're making it sound like anti-poker people hate children, charities, and puppies. Clearly untrue."
The PPA has come a long way recently and I still wholeheartedly support the group's mission. It's clearly on the right track. It just needs some good counsel on how to handle some of its outeach efforts. Grade: B-
The legislators: Several legislators from around South Carolina came to Greenville. It started about as badly as you might expect. Committee Chairman Robert Ford is from the Low Country. He likes to party and is a laid back guy. He's obviously from the coast. The problem is that his brand of humor doesn't play here. He knew coming into the Upstate that he was going to be facing a very conservative crowd. Rather than respect it, Ford started the meeting by saying, "I guess since we're in Greenville, we need to start with a short prayer. We didn't do that in Charleston."
There is no greater way to tick off a group of praying people than saying, "I guess we'll do it since we're in your house, but we wouldn't do it we were home." Ford is a fun guy, but he is not one to sway hearts and minds. He seemed more intent on debating that convincing. Bad play, sir.
Senator Jake Knotts, a retired cop from Lexington County (around the state capital), is no better. While obviously being in favor of the bill, he spent more than half his time arguing on tangential subjects such as whether the stock market was gambling and whether a local arcade contains games of chance or skill. He also left before the hearing was over (I know, because I left two and half hours into it and he was ahead of me in the parking lot). Knotts is a fierce advocate for whatever he believes in. Sadly, most of the time he throws a punch, he misses his target and hits the referee.
Senator Brad Hutto is yet another Democrat from the coast. He is seemingly a smart guy. He also listens very well. Unfortunately, he stayed too quiet through most of the meeting. He could've used what seemed to be his openmindedness to convince the opposition. Instead, he sat and looked annoyed. I don't blame him. I looked annoyed, too.
Senator Phillip Shoopman is actually from the Greenville area. Despite apparently being opposed to the law change, he was also level headed. He seemed to imply he could handle a poker home game decriminalization measure as long as it didn't involve opening up the state to new raffles. Of all the opponents in the room, he was the most reasonable. I appreciated his ability to disagree with me without resorting to name calling and being judgmental.
Senator Mick Mulvaney from York County won the day. If there was an eye-on-the-ball legislator Monday night, it was Senator Mulvaney. Erudite, polite, and mature, Mulvaney was exactly what the conversation needed. If the entire legislature was made up of people like the York Co. senator, there might be a little more confidence in the intelligence of the body. Mulvaney is a Republican and we disagree on many subjects. That said, I can respect his style and his ability to allow me to disagree with him without resorting to tired and childish forms of debate.
I'm quite pleased the lawmakers are taking the time to deal with this thorny issue. I'm less impressed with their way of handling their detractors. I covered lawmakers from 1996 to 2005. I'd forgotten how disenchanted I was with the people and the politics. I got a quick reminder Monday night. Grade: C-
The Anti-Gambling lobby: Wow. I mean, wow. I know I live in the conservative part of a state that is one of the most conservative of the nation. I've seen the huge anti-gambling forces fill gymnasiums to fight against video poker. I know there are people who don't like gambling around here. I get that part. That said, the folks who came out of the woodwork to fight the possibility of raffles and legalized poker home games were just...impressive.
Chief among the detractors was Tony Beam, a conservative radio host and bigwig at a Southern Baptist university in the north part of Greenville County. Well-spoken and persuasive, Beam is a debater of the first order and has all the charisma of Rush Limbaugh. He is also the king of the straw man. He and Bob Jones University professor Dr. Bob Taylor (a doctor of math, if you can believe it) both rallied the troops by stating that allowing raffles and home games would open the door to casino gambling in South Carolina. They state this despite the fact the bills clearly state that such gambling would be strictly forbidden. They state it because the only way to really rally the anti-gambling crew is to offend their sense of morality. They would get nowhere if they said, "Fight against people's rights to play cards in their own home! People playing poker in their home could turn your children into sinners. Charitable raffles in churches are the agents of Satan." Even the most fervent of gambling haters would have a hard time getting a rise out of that.
So, the detractors create the king of the straw men: home poker games and church raffles will mean MGM and Harrah's will set up shop in Mauldin next week. It doesn't follow, it's silly, and it's just wrong.
Here's the best part. The most vocal of the opponents at the hearing were from Bob Jones University and North Greenville University. Both are privately funded schools and take no state money. Fair enough. That said, their student body is made up of students who are there on scholarships. Many of those scholarships are funded by...wait for it...the South Carolina lottery.
Later Monday night (yes, at a poker game) a graduate of Bob Jones University (who financed his way through school gambling on backgammon) asked why I thought his alma mater was so fervently against home poker games and raffles. Without understanding the motivation fully, I answered. First, they want to impose their morality on as many people as possible. Second, it's an opportunity to be heard. They are an interest group and an interest group is nothing without an issue to fight for or against. And so, the stickers that say "No new gambling" on their chests. And so the tear-filled speeches about lost families. And so the wavering voice of a radio host who talks about the people he has brought back from the brink of video poker addiction.
This is all because the American Legion wants to run a raffle to support its charities. This is all because I want to check-raise my friends in a cheap game of poker.
In short, the opposition is a lot like the proponents of the bill. They are so morally offended by the other side, they can't bring themselves to make a legitimate argument. They are exceptionally devoted and charismatic, but they need to read a book by Dale Carnegie. Grade: C-
Poker players: Despite a massive turnout in favor of the bill, a good portion of the people in the audience were there in support of charitable raffles. The local poker community is huge. Not enough of the players cared enough to show up. I knew going in that my presence wasn't going to make much difference. I was going anyway, but felt better about it when G-Rob said, "Nothing ever got changed by people doing nothing." I was disappointed by how few of my fellow poker players showed up. Grade: D
It's clear I'm frustrated. I'd hoped to write something a little more positive about the hearing. Sadly, nothing positive came from the hearing. The people on my side were unfocused, tangential, and irrational. The people on the other side were unfocused, tangential, and irrational. It was an act of legislative and advocacy masturbation and I am sad that I wasted nearly three hours of my life in the middle of it.
Because I've converted to Optimism, I look forward to what's to come. Because I still have latent fatalist tendencies, things don't look too good--for other side.
Photo courtesy GreenvilleOnline.com