Wednesday, June 22, 2005 | 9:36 a.m.
MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Former state Rep. Nathan Mathis announced Tuesday he will run for governor on a gambling platform. And he is doing it by taking a gamble that has traditionally been a loser for Alabama politicians -- running as an independent.
If elected, Mathis said he will try to bring casinos to Alabama and would tax them to help fund health care, prisons and state troopers.
Mathis, who served three terms in the Alabama House as a Democrat from Newton, said he will need to get 42,000 voters to sign a petition so he can run as an independent.
Mathis said he plans to run as an independent because he didn't like the way the Democratic Party treated former state Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bishop when he challenged Gov. Don Siegelman in the Democratic primary in 2002. He rates his odds as "long."
Jess Brown, a political scientist at Athens State University, said he can't recall an independent getting elected to statewide office in Alabama. But he said Mathis is taking the right approach to running as an independent -- pick a single "lightning rod" issue and try to get voters excited about it.
If nothing else, Mathis' gambling platform may force other candidates to debate an issue they might prefer to avoid, Brown said.
While Mathis jumped into the governor's race Tuesday, the incumbent, Republican Bob Riley, kept brushing off reporters' questions about whether he will seek a second term.
"There is ample opportunity to talk about a campaign at a future date," he said at a news conference.
Mathis said that if he is elected, his first priority will be to negotiate a compact with the Poarch Creek Indians to let them expand their gambling halls in Atmore, Wetumpka and Montgomery into full-fledged casinos, provided they agree to pay 12 percent of the gross revenue to the state.
Mathis said he would also ask the Legislature and Alabama voters to approve a constitutional amendment that would:
-allow the state to take bids for opening 15 casinos across the state.
-allow the two dog tracks with electronic bingo in Macon and Greene counties and the electronic bingo hall in White Hall to become full casinos.
-require the casinos to pay 12 percent of their gross revenue to the state.
"Under my proposal, all monies would be deposited into the General Fund to solve our problems with Medicaid, prisons, and our shortage of state troopers," Mathis said.
Gambling legislation traditionally meets strong opposition in the Legislature, but Mathis said people don't realize how much gambling is going on in electronic bingo halls. He said some halls have more gambling machines than some Mississippi casinos, and Alabama is not collecting tax from them.
If Alabama voters reject casinos, Mathis said he would seek legislation shutting down all electronic bingo halls.
Mathis, 62, served in the Alabama House from 1982-94, but he has been active in politics in recent years. He ran for the Alabama House in 1998, but lost. In 2002, he ran for agriculture commissioner, finishing second to Ron Sparks in the Democratic primary.
Mathis' son, Joey, died last October after taking OxyContin. After the death, Mathis spoke out publicly to warn other parents about the prescription drug being readily available on the street.
"If one person can stay off drugs because of this, it will be worth it," Mathis said at the time. _centerline(PROFILE _centerline(COUNTRY:United States; ISOCOUNTRY3:USA; UNTOP:021; APGROUP:NorthAmerica;) _centerline(CAT:Political;) _centerline(CAT:Agriculture;) _centerline(CAT:Business;) _centerline(CAT:Municipal;) _centerline(CAT:Labor;) _centerline(CAT:Gambling;) _centerline(CAT:Legal;) _centerline(CAT:Science;) _centerline(SRC:AP; ST:AL;) _centerline)