Democratic Donor-Casino Owner at Center of Voting Rights Suit

Photograph by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Jay Danny Cooper urges Alabama residents to vote in the primary on March 13, 2012 in Birmingham, Alabama.

Democratic donor Milton McGregor is at the center of a voting rights suit against Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange.

Strange led the February 2013 raid on McGregor’s VictoryLand, a dog track more than 20 miles east of the state capital of Montgomery that later added electronic bingo machines after residents of majority-black Macon County approved the games in a 2003 referendum.

Tuskegee Mayor Johnny Ford and others in Macon County have sued Strange and Gov. Robert Bentley, accusing them of “the suppression and negation of lawfully cast votes” by closing the casino.

They have unsuccessfully sought support from President Barack Obama’s administration, which intervened on the side of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians when Alabama officials tried to close their casinos as well.

“If you have done it for the Indians, you ought to do it for the rest of us,” said Ford, arguing that federal support “has always been our hope for black people in the South. Here is it again.”

Strange contends that the casinos offer slot machines, which are illegal in Alabama, rather than legal bingo. He has called the voting rights lawsuit “a legally frivolous publicity stunt.”

U.S. District Judge W. Keith Watkins agreed with him, dismissing the suit Dec. 23 as “objectively frivolous” and ordering Ford’s side to pay the state’s legal fees.

Ford gave notice on Jan. 21 that he was taking the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

Benard Simelton, president of the NAACP’s Alabama state conference, says the state’s closing of a betting facility approved at the ballot box was another blow to minorities who have already seen their rights eroded by actions such as voter-identification laws.

“That’s what we fought for in the ’60s, to get a strong voting-rights law on the books to prevent jurisdictions from preventing African-Americans from voting,” Simelton said. “This is essentially the same thing. People have voted for it but they’re saying, `No, you can’t have it even though you voted for it.’  The state is trying to turn back the clock.”

McGregor was singled out in a 2009 Alabama Republican Party resolution opposing gambling. He first saw his casino shut down in 2010 by then-Gov. Bob Riley over the objection of then-Alabama Attorney General Troy King, a fellow Republican. Riley later supported Strange’s successful 2010 primary challenge to King.

“There has been a systematic move to emasculate and destroy anyone giving money to Democrats,” King said in an interview. “What I see are political vendettas.”

McGregor and his wife have made $526,940 in donations since 1997, primarily to Alabama Democrats, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Following the earlier 2010 raid, McGregor asked the state legislature to sanction a statewide referendum specifically authorizing electronic bingo at selected locations.

The effort died amid a criminal probe that led to the indictment of McGregor and some allied Democratic state lawmakers. They were acquitted in a trial that included transcripts quoting Republican lawmakers calling blacks “aborigines.”

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited the trial in her dissent when the Republican-appointed members of the High Court struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act. She called the Republicans’ language “shocking” as they talked “openly of their aim to quash” the referendum “out of concern it would increase black turnout.”

Today, McGregor’s gold-clad VictoryLand sits idle, save for a handful of bettors watching simulcast races on the second floor overlooking the old dog track.

“They wanted to eliminate me as a political player,” McGregor said. “They concocted an illegal scheme to get me indicted and an illegal scheme to close my business.”

The track first opened in 1984. With bingo, McGregor’s facility grew to eventually employ 2,300 people and raise money for 60 area charities. He added a buffet, a steakhouse, a place to bet the horses and watch sports, and a 10-story hotel.

After the state confiscated his bingo machines in February, McGregor shut the hotel and stopped work on an adjoining convention center and seafood restaurant.

“The longer they string it out, the longer his place sits idle, nothing happens,” Ford said. “It’s a modern-day lynching.”

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