Minority Businesses Decry Northam Gaming Restriction

by James A. Bacon

Minority small business owners operating under the name “Virginia Small Businesses for Skill Games” are calling on Governor Ralph Northam to amend legislation to keep the game terminals in bars, restaurants and convenience stores. Casinos, which are years away from opening in the four localities where they have been approved, have lobbied to eliminate the slot machine-like terminals which would compete with their franchises.

Legislators had planned to prohibit the skill games this year, but Northam and legislators postponed the ban to prevent additional business losses during the COVID-19 pandemic and boost education funding; $95 million in taxes generated by the machines were used to offset pandemic-related losses. The vague language in the new legislation might have inadvertently allowed the games to continue operating another year. Northam’s amendment eliminated any uncertainty.

“It is ridiculous to put these stores out of business and rob Virginians of an activity they enjoy to protect a competing form of entertainment,” said Randy Wright, a former Norfolk city councilman who is leading the 11th hour push to save the games. “I stand with these courageous small business owners and call on the Governor to do the right thing and not allow these Virginians, particularly in the middle of a pandemic that has crippled their revenue, to suffer even more because of clearly discriminatory actions taken by their own elected officials.”

“We need the small businesses. They need the skill machines.  Don’t take away the people’s enjoyment,” said Patricia Turner, a Norfolk civil rights leader who was one of the first 17 students to integrate Norfolk schools in 1959, during a Monday rally in Norfolk.

“Our model as Asian American businesses is we work hard, we don’t ask much from the government,” said Bobi Patel, representing the Virginia Asian American Stores Association.  “It looks like our Governor is discriminating against us, so I ask you Governor, why are you allowing this to happen? You are allowing the big casinos and sports betting to exist but you’re trying to take the skill games from our businesses that will close a lot of small stores.”

The small business owners are asking the state to use the nearly $150-million in state taxes the skill games are generating to fund scholarships to enable every Virginian living under the poverty line to attend college for free, according to a press release issued by Virginia Small Businesses for Skill Games.

“With these resources, we can remove that stigma and those barricades to people of color getting education which is the true ‘hand up’ that the Governor promised when he said he would bring about reform,” said community activist Michael Muhammad. “We would have rather watched you moonwalk than to watch you backslide on the promises that you made to the African American community.”

“Governor Northam if you’re listening, I’m going to say it loud,” added Tommy Polisero, who owns Mona Lisa restaurant in Norfolk and depends on skill game revenue to pay his taxes, employees and other expenses. “We need your support.  We pay our taxes on these machines. We’re giving back. You need to give back to us.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Northam needs to reverse his racist decision to shut down so-called “games of skill” July 1. I use the word “racist” because his amendment to a bill enacted by the General Assembly at the behest of the gambling industry will have a disproportionate impact on restaurants and convenience stores owned by minority proprietors. Northam’s intent may not have been racist, but intent is irrelevant. What matters are outcomes. I’m just applying the logic that Northam has deployed to fight racism in Virginia schools, colleges, universities, environmental policy, state hiring practices, and more.

Live by the sword, die by the sword.