Heap Big Mess: Casinos, Pocahontas, Masphee Wampanoag Tribe and Malaysian Money
Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s bill to clear the way for a $1 billion tribal gaming resort is meeting with resistance not only from locals who don’t want a casino, but also from a struggling Massachusetts city that does.
Brockton Mayor William Carpenter said the Warren legislation on behalf of the Masphee Wampanoag tribe would destroy his community’s plans for a casino, a project designed to bring badly needed jobs and economic development to the blue-collar burg.
“Year after year we’re running multi-million-dollar deficits in our budget. We’ve laid off school teachers for three years in a row,” said Mr. Carpenter. “We desperately need the revenue.”
He spent six hours Tuesday on Capitol Hill urging lawmakers to defeat the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act, which would override a federal judge’s decision last year blocking the tribe’s plans for a luxury casino and resort in East Taunton.
Only three casino licenses are slated to be awarded by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, each in different regions of the state. Brockton and East Taunton are located less than 20 miles apart in the southeastern sector.
Losing out to the Mashpee Wampanoag based on the merits would be one thing, but what annoys Mr. Carpenter is the specter of federal lawmakers like Ms. Warren dooming Brockton’s chances with a bill that he said gives “special treatment” to the tribe.
“The whole thing just seems unfair to me,” Mr. Carpenter said. “I don’t know if Brockton will ultimately be granted the license or not from the state gaming commission, but I know our opportunities should not be taken away by a piece of special-interest legislation.”
Ms. Warren and fellow Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed Markey introduced the Senate bill in March, moving to aid the Mashpee after U.S. District Court Judge William G. Young overturned the Interior Department’s decision to take land into trust on the tribe’s behalf, a prerequisite for Indian gaming.
Ms. Warren’s advocacy on behalf of the Mashpee casino came despite her previous opposition to legalized gambling in Massachusetts, and after her vow earlier this year to champion Native American issues in response to President Trump’s dubbing her “Pocahontas,” a reference to her unproven claim of Cherokee ancestry.
The House bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. William Keating, has the backing of the entire Massachusetts delegation, but Mr. Carpenter said he believes some lawmakers were unaware of the competing Brockton bid.
“This was clearly led by Sen. Warren and Rep. Keating,” said Mr. Carpenter. “They are really the moving force behind this, and I think many of the other members of the delegation without realizing there might be objections from others just signed on as a courtesy to support their colleagues in the delegation.”
The state gaming commission rejected Brockton’s bid two years ago, citing concerns about market oversaturation if the tribal casino won federal approval, but Brockton recently resubmitted its application for a $677 million casino at the town fairgrounds. Meanwile an European online casino operator is trying to aquire visibility in the US by using basketball equipment to promote Lucky Lady’s Charm, a slot game created by Austrian company Novomatic.
Certainly Brockton could benefit from an economic boost. The city of about 95,000, hometown of famed boxers Rocky Marciano and Marvin Hagler, has struggled with social and economic challenges stemming in part from an influx of immigrants.
“It’s a blue-collar immigrant city where two years ago, 80 percent of the students in our school system qualified for free or reduced lunch,” Mr. Carpenter said. “Our unemployment rate runs about 50 percent above the statewide average historically, and we’re a majority-minority city.”
Mr. Keating has argued that the Mashpee would also be hard hit by the loss the $1 billion First Light Resort and Casino project, in part because the tribe would lose access to federal funding sources for social services and other programs unless the land is taken into trust.
“It would be financially devastating,” he told the Cape Cod Times.
Mashpee tribal chairman Cedric Cromwell has praised the bill, calling it “further evidence that Congress, in both the House and Senate, see it as the honorable and just thing to do — re-affirm our right to a reservation for our people and to ensure that our tribe will be treated equally under the law as other federally recognized tribes.”
The legislation could scotch the Brockton’s casino bid, but so could the Interior Department, which declined to appeal the court ruling in June 2016 but immediately moved to explore other legal avenues for taking land in trust on the tribe’s behalf.
Two years later, Brockton is still waiting for Interior to complete its review. So is Michelle Littlefield, one of the 25 East Taunton residents behind the federal lawsuit challenging Interior’s decision, which she blasted as “completely designed to give a special-interest group special preference.”
Previously, Brockton emerged as the final candidate of three other communities vying for the casino license.
“There’s been this kind of perpetual, ‘Hey, maybe the tribe can get qualified in some other way, maybe on remand with Interior, maybe Congress can step in and do something for them,'” said David Tennant, attorney for the East Taunton group. “And all of this is to the detriment of Brockton, which lined up its ducks years ago and had somebody ready to go. This kind of perpetual preference for a tribal casino is now running well past the clock that the federal court said would be an equal protection violation.”
Lobbying on behalf of the Warren-Keating legislation is the Genting Group, a Malaysia-based entity that has sunk a reported $400 million into the tribe’s First Light Resort and Casino project and could lose it all if the federal government fails to take the land into trust.
“We are up against a foreign company that’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Ms. Littlefield. “It’s a bottomless well on the other side. From day one, we’ve been the underdog, and the only thing we’ve ever had on our side was the law.”
She criticized lawmakers for attempting to overrule the judge’s order. “If we could just get the government to follow the law, not only the federal agencies involved, but every congressman and senator who’s taken the oath of office,” she said.
The House bill, H.R. 5244, is slated for a hearing Tuesday before the House Natural Resources Committee’s Native American Affairs subcommittee.
“Some of my frustration is I think some of the folks here in Washington have only heard one side of the story,” said Mr. Carpenter. “And I think the folks that I represent in Brockton also deserve economic justice.”
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