Gaming's Number May Be Up In Louisiana Governor's Race

LOUISIANA voters Saturday will choose between a black liberal Democrat and a white conservative Republican in a gubernatorial election that - whoever wins - could deal the state's gambling industry a losing hand.

Polls show Republican Murphy Foster is likely to defeat Democrat Cleo Fields. If Foster wins, it would signal the continuance of a conservative tilt among voters in the South and across the nation. It would also give the Republicans one more governorship, continuing a historic shift at the state level.

Foster, who switched to the Republican Party before this race, would be taking the office his grandfather and namesake held a century ago.

The elder Foster was elected in an era in which the scandal-ridden Louisiana lottery was a corrupting influence in state politics, and Foster abolished it. Today, legalized gambling is again a pervasive force in Louisiana, and both the present-day Foster and his opponent say they're for sharp curbs on the gamblers.

Louisiana has had horse-race gambling and charity bingo games for decades, but the real push toward legalized gambling began with the revival of the lottery in 1990. The state legalized floating riverboat casinos and video-draw poker machines in 1991. It authorized what is billed as the world's largest land-based casino in New Orleans in 1992. A permanent casino at the foot of Canal Street is scheduled to open next summer.

The endgame

Except for the lottery, which was done by public referendum, the other forms of gambling were legalized by the Legislature without a popular vote. When video-poker parlors began to crop up near churches and schools and residents discovered that the Legislature had no means by which to keep them out, public opinion began to turn. Major efforts to restrict video poker were defeated in 1994 and 1995 legislative sessions by well-heeled gambling lobbyists.

That attracted the attention of federal investigators, and in August a bombshell dropped: A wide-ranging investigation of the gambling industry became public, focusing on whether state legislators have received illegal gifts or favors from gambling lobbyists. Subpoenas went out to lawmakers, lobbyists, and gambling figures. Although no indictments have been returned yet, many of those named did not seek reelection and contributions from gambling interests became politically radioactive.

An analysis of campaign-finance reports analyzed by the New Orleans Times Picayune showed that interests named in the subpoena gave more than $250,000 to state legislators in 1993-94. All the major candidates for governor - except one - pledged to refuse contributions from gambling interests and returned those they had taken.

Foster - a two-term senator from Franklin, La., who voted for the land-based casino - began his campaign for governor with a call for an outright ban on campaign contributions by gambling interests.

Fields, a US congressman from Baton Rouge, joined in attacks on the gambling industry, proposing to hike the state tax on casinos - already double that of neighboring Mississippi - by another 5 percent. He also called for letting local communities vote on whether to keep every form of gambling except the lottery. ''They've already voted on the lottery,'' he said.

Foster says he favors a statewide referendum on each form of gambling, but just how the results would be implemented remains somewhat murky.

On issues other than gambling, the Fields-Foster runoff sounds like a classic liberal vs. conservative contest. On abortion, Fields is pro-choice,while Foster opposes the procedure even for victims of rape and incest. Fields is for gun control, while Foster wants to give private citizens the right to carry concealed weapons.

Rejecting the race card

At the beginning of the runoff campaign, both candidates agreed to keep the racial issue out of the campaign. If elected, Fields would be Louisiana's first African-American governor since Reconstruction. But he faces an uphill battle in a state in which the voter registration is 73 percent white.

The most recent statewide poll, by Southeastern Louisiana University at Hammond, showed Foster with 50.7 percent of the vote to 30.9 percent for Fields, with the rest undecided. Among decided voters who participated in the primary, the result was Foster 62.8 percent, Fields 37.2 percent.

Some political observers feel that Fields' biggest problem is not so much skin color as ideological orientation.

''It isn't about race,'' says Baton Rouge pollster and political consultant Bernie Pinsonat. ''If a white candidate had run [in the primary] with Fields' voting record and platform, he wouldn't have gotten 5 percent of the vote. Fields is just too liberal.''

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