Mitchell holds rally, addresses bingo vote

Published 9:11 pm Thursday, October 7, 2010

At the Studio Thursday, about 60 people attended a rally for incumbent State Sen. “Walking” Wendell Mitchell, D-Luverne, where they ate hotdogs and heard Mitchell’s response to questions about his connection to the bingo vote buying scandal.

Hank Jones, a retired superintendent of the Troy City school system, helped organize the rally and lunch.

“It’s an opportunity to recognize a leader in our district,” Jones said. “Senator Mitchell has been very kind to Pike County over the years. We are very appreciative of it.”

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Guests included Sheriff Russell Thomas, Revenue Commissioner Curtis Blair, and the mayors of Brundidge and Troy.

After lunch, Mayor Jimmy Lunsford introduced Mitchell. The senator then gave a brief, casual talk on the needs of the people, in which he mentioned the plight of rural American in increasingly suburban areas in Alabama.

“There are very few of us left who are voices for people in the rural areas of the state,” he said.

He also reassured his constituents that his longevity in office has given him a reliable and steadfast voice to address the people’s needs.

“When I call up, I don’t have to identify myself, I don’t have to make a plea,” he said. “And more times than not, I get a favorable answer.”

Mitchell has been linked by some to the bingo vote buying scandal that ended in the indictment of four state senators and several lobbyists. In the indictment, details cited a phone call between casino owner Ronald Gilley and a lobbyist, in which they discussed offering an unnamed senator who was ill at the time of the debate a hefty inducement for his vote. Mitchell was ill at the time of the debate, but he maintains that he was never approached by anyone seeking to influence his vote.

Wendell’s opponent, Republican nominee Bryan Taylor, voiced his doubts in a press release Thursday. In it, he wondered why Mitchell voted for the bill even though he has spoken out against gambling in the past.

“When Wendell Mitchell said he was against the bingo bill, voters believed him,” Taylor said in the release. “Then, even though he was gravely ill, he showed up and delivered the deciding vote for the gambling legislation. The question has always been, why?”

Taylor said he believes Mitchell should defend his vote for the bill.

“It’s time for Wendell Mitchell to give us an explanation why he voted for the bingo bill, even though he said he was against it.”

During an interview with The Messenger, Mitchell said he changed his stance on the bingo bill because the substance of the bill had changed from its original form. “There are two ways to put a law into effect. The first is a state statute, meaning if I as a senator vote on that and it passes, then it’s done, it becomes law,” he said. “I said I would never do that because I oppose gambling.” And, he said he opposed any gambling law that would be passed as a state statute.

But Mitchell said he changed his stance because the bill actually presented to the Senate for a vote was in the form of a statewide referendum, which gave the people of Alabama the opportunity to vote. “When it came to a bill that the substituted and allowed for a constitutional referendum, I did vote for that,” he said. “I think the people should have the right to decide.”

At the rally, he faced the accusations head-on. Mitchell said he was never approached or offered money for his vote, and he told supporters he was not indicted.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes or ears Monday morning when all that stuff came out,” he said. “In all my years of service, 25 years, I have never, ever had a single lobbyist come to me and make an offer for my vote.”

He then assured his supporters that it was his principles—and not bribes—that influenced his vote.

“Folks, I didn’t take any inducement to go vote. That’s my job.” He was answered by a round of applause.

Local 90-year-old Thelma Tellis attended the rally in a cloth hat and an apron embroidered with a family tree. She said she would put one of Mitchell’s shoe-shaped campaign signs in her yard.

“As long as it’s right, I’m with him,” she said.

After his speech, Mitchell made his way to the buffet table, but was interrupted by supporters and political responsibilities—before he could eat, he presented a check to Charles Henderson High School Principal Kathy Murphy and Troy City Schools Superintendent Linda Felton-Smith..

As the crowd began to dissipate, Mitchell finally sat down to his meal with Sheriff Thomas. He was the last person at the rally to eat.

Stacy Graning contributed to this report.