No, you’re not seeing things. Those are indeed a bunch of conservative white guys from the heartland running around Capitol Hill this week, begging their representatives for more taxation and regulation.
They are online poker players speaking on behalf of more than 10 million Americans across the country. My client, the Poker Players Alliance (PPA) represents about 1.5 million of them and organized the “Fly In”.
In its brief history, PPA membership skyrocketed because the Republican-held Congress pushed a bill in 2006 that attempts to force banks from processing money between their customer and an online gaming site. This apparent ban on online gaming was signed by a conservative President and various federal agencies began the process of trying to define "illegal" gaming; which to this day, they haven't been able to do. As the bureaucracy kept trying and banks kept trying to figure out how to enforce the law, a growing number of players continued to play each day.
To most of those players, for the past five years, Republicans were the anti-poker villains. Many Republicans in Congress were the most vocal opponents of legislation pushed by Democrats to produce a system of regulation, licensing and taxation for online playing, much like Britain and other countries have.
Oh, and by the way, it’s projected that this regulatory system would produce tens of billions of revenue to the US treasury in the next decade.
When Obama was elected, many of us who had worked hard for him were hopeful that the man who didn't seem to mind being called "Poker Player in Chief" would support that legislation.
But this White House hasn’t been any help - and it’s hard to understand why. Given that President Obama will likely never score points with far-right “values” voters, standing up for Americans’ freedom to play poker in the privacy of their own home can’t possibly be bad for his re-election. But the Obama administration apparently wasn’t content just to stand on the sidelines while players blamed Republicans.
On April 15, otherwise known as “Black Friday” in the poker world, Obama’s Justice Department shut down several popular poker sites and froze tens—perhaps hundreds—of millions of dollars in the accounts of players big and small.
By diverting law enforcement resources in the Southern District of New York away from chasing terrorists and financial thieves and devoting them to breaking up poker games, this administration stunned both poker players and many hardcore Obama supporters alike.
It’s what people in my world call being politically brain dead. Take an action that mortifies and mobilizes undecided voters against you and gets you absolutely nothing of political value in return.
As a liberal Democrat and loyal Obama supporter, I hate seeing the White House engage in such politically self-destructive activities. As I personally witness the poker crowd’s wrath in Capitol hallways this week, I think about the other millions of angry players out there.
The PPA rank and file is made up of mostly fiscal conservatives - certainly not the basic Democratic demographic, and in fact more like the quintessential Libertarian.
But in several races for the House and Senate last year, poker players wrote checks and pounded the pavement for liberal Democrats and were given credit by those Democrats for some very narrow victories. Sure, many players held their noses while doing it, but the freedom to play online poker was more important to them than almost any other issue.
But after "Black Friday" these up-for-grabs voters forgot about Bush and those congressional conservatives who started all this and will soon focus their 2012 political activities against Obama.
For the most part, the players are from “battleground” states Obama simply can’t afford to lose. Just look at the PPA membership in these states and remember that it’s only a tiny fraction of all online players:
North Carolina: 27,195
The pro-poker citizen lobbyists in Washington this week are promoting that same corrective legislation. Its backers include conservative Republicans like Rep. Joe Barton of Texas and Rep. John Campbell of California, and liberal Democrats like Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee.
Though the Fly-In is aimed at Congress, it’s also a signal to the President and his re-election team that they still have a chance to get off the top of the poker enemies list before it’s too late.
My family and I will do anything we can to help this President win a second term. And this message is actually sent in that spirit.
Perhaps other supporters like me will join in and convince Obama’s re-election gurus like David Plouffe and David Axelrod that they need to urge the President to go “all in” and support efforts to change the current law. There’s nothing wrong with injecting billions of dollars into the economy while sending a clear signal to a critical group of American voters that you respect their right to play a game of skill they enjoy.
Toby Moffett is a Former Member of Congress, Chairman of the Moffett Group and Poker Lobbyist