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S-lots of forkedtongues in tribes

Nov 16, 2004 7:17 AM

The small town where I grew up had three theaters. The Capitol and the Hollywood were for grownups, and the Hippodrome was for kids, down a narrow street and across from the bookie joint where my father introduced me to horses.

Every Saturday afternoon the Hippodrome had a cowboy and Indians feature, and a serial where, at the end, the hero or heroine was left in peril for another week. I remember, as a kid who loved underdogs, how I used to thrill when the Indian chief would say, in chiefly tones, "White man speak with forked tongue."

Now, all these years later, I discover the white man’s disease was contagious. The Seminoles of Florida caught it, and have it bad. So bad that a writer named Michael Mayo, who works for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, wrote earlier this month:

"There’s gall. There’s chutzpah. And then there’s the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Words fail to describe the stunt pulled by the Seminole leaders in this latest election. Sleazy, slick, shameless. Pick one. They all fit."

What set Mayo off was what the Seminoles’ leaders did in the weeks before November 2. The tribe has a monopoly on casino gaming in Florida, if you don’t count the gambling boats and their cruises to nowhere. Slots at tracks have been defeated three times in recent years in Florida, but this year the tracks got Amendment 4 on the ballot, which opened the door again.

The Seminoles had to find a way to beat it. So they harked back to Revolutionary days, and fought behind trees and rocks and swamps, anywhere they couldn’t be seen. They were helped by a loophole in Florida’s finance law, which said they didn’t have to reveal their involvement in the election until it was over. They were so successfully secret that many of the tribe’s 3,050 members didn’t even know what their five-man Tribal Council had done.

What it had done was pay $5.6 million for an ad campaign that said gambling was immoral. Their ads said that slot machines would bring crime and drugs and ”˜tarnish Florida’s family-friendly’ image. Mayo found that tough to take, "considering the Seminoles are getting fat off the non-natives’ wallets with their six untaxed, under-regulated casinos and thousands of VLTs." The Seminole-sponsored ads urged the public to defeat Amendment 4, and they almost got the job done.

In fact, they had won when the votes were counted on election night. Then someone in Broward County, which played a large part in the Florida shenanigans that got George Bush elected four years ago, thought there was something screwy in the vote.

It turned out that the counting machines in Broward could count only up to 32,500, at which point they turned around and started counting backwards, subtracting votes from there. This had been called to the attention of election officials two years ago, but no one ever bothered to have it fixed. The official in charge called it human error.

When the software glitch was corrected on Nov. 3, Amendment 4 had won by 8,000 votes statewide, instead of losing by 6,000. This means that if voters in Broward and Miami-Dade counties vote for the idea again in March, as they did overwhelmingly earlier this month, the seven pari-mutuel operations in those counties, including Magna Entertainment’s Gulfstream Park; Isle of Capri’s Pompano Park; and Churchill Downs’ Calder Race Course can have slots. Since Amendment 4 carried by two-to-one margins in those two counties, it seems likely the tracks might win.

Unless there is more monkeying around down there.

Opponents of the slots plan immediately set out to have the legislature nullify the will of the voters by nixing the idea when it comes up for legislative review in March. Since this is Florida, anything might happen.

Nothing, I discover all these decades later, has changed since I was a kid, except I know now that white men are not the only guys who speak with forked tongue. Particularly when big bucks are on the line.

Learning that truth, as late as I have, has robbed me of all those great Saturdays with the noble chiefs at the old Hippodrome.