She’s never been a gambling fan, but Sen. Elizabeth Warren is pushing federal legislation to help deliver a casino to a tribe with a checkered past as she struggles to neutralize her “Pocahontas” problem.
Her bill, introduced in March with fellow Massachusetts Democrat Sen. Edward Markey, would allow the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe to build a $1 billion gaming resort about halfway between Boston and Cape Cod even though a federal court blocked the project in 2016.
The Senate bill and its House companion have drawn cheers from tribal leaders eager to resume construction on the lavish complex while stirring resentment among locals irritated at the prospect of Congress big-footing the ongoing Interior Department review.
“It’s certainly an end-run on both what’s going on in court and at the agency level,” said attorney David Tennant, who represents 25 East Taunton residents challenging the project.
Ms. Warren’s involvement comes despite a record indicating that when it comes to gaming, she’s not a high roller.
She opposed the state’s 2011 law expanding Las Vegas-style gambling and supported the 2014 repeal effort, which was defeated. Last year, she sponsored a bill to treat gambling addiction in the military.
“It’s a tough call to make,” Ms. Warren told Reuters in 2014. “People need jobs, but gambling can also be a real problem economically for a lot of people. I didn’t support gambling the first time around and I don’t expect to support it [now].”
At the same time, Ms. Warren recently committed herself to advancing Native American causes in response to President Trump’s digs at her unproven claims of Cherokee ancestry.
In February, she told the National Congress of American Indians that she would “lift up” their stories whenever anyone criticized her, presumably referring to the president.
Among those who cheered her announcement was Cedric Cromwell, tribal council chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag.
“We especially appreciate her remarks about how this government owes its native citizens ‘a fighting chance to build stronger communities and a brighter future — starting with a more prosperous economic future on tribal lands,'” Mr. Cromwell told the Associated Press.
He later commended Ms. Warren’s “outstanding leadership” after she and Mr. Markey introduced the bill, saying it would “protect our ancestral homeland.”
“This bill is 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,” Mr. Cromwell said.
Crossing Abramoff’s path
The legislation comes as the latest chapter in the years-long political saga of the Mashpee Wampanoag, which gained notoriety for its dealings with lobbyists Jack Abramoff and Kevin A. Ring, figures at the center of the Native American lobbying scandal.
Abramoff pleaded guilty to conspiracy, tax evasion and other charges in 2006, while his former colleague Ring was convicted on federal corruption charges in 2010.
Former Mashpee tribal chairman Glenn Marshall, who had previously been convicted of rape, pleaded guilty in 2009 to embezzling tribal funds and campaign-finance violations while working with Abramoff to secure federal recognition for the tribe, which was granted in 2007.
The scandal set back the tribe’s casino plans, but in 2015 the Obama administration took about 300 acres of tribal land into trust, allowing the Mashpee to partner with Malaysian developer Genting Group and break ground on the project in Taunton, Massachusetts.
Another figure from the Abramoff lobbying scandal, former California Rep. Richard Pombo, now works as a lobbyist for Genting Americas Holding Limited, which has been involved with funding the project.
In July 2016, construction was halted after a federal court rejected the Interior Department’s decision based on Carcieri v. Salazar, the 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the declared the federal government could only take land into trust for tribes recognized at the time of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.
“With respect, this is not a close call: to find ambiguity here would be to find it everywhere,” said U.S. District Court Judge William G. Young in his 22-page ruling.
The Interior Department is now considering whether the small tribe can qualify under another legal framework, but the House and Senate legislation would reaffirm the tribal property as trust land without agency action.
The Mashpee Wampanoag aren’t the first tribe to attempt a Carcieri work-around by going through Congress, although the strategy is generally seen as a longshot, or as Mr. Tennant put it, “a Hail Mary on top of a Hail Mary.”
Local reaction to the federal involvement has been mixed. In Mashpee, officials said the “lack of communication has been a disservice to the town of Mashpee,” while Taunton Mayor Thomas C. Hoye Jr. has thrown his support behind the bill.
“If it passes, it will remove whatever lack of clarity the Interior Department may have now as it relates to reservation land for one of our nation’s truly historic tribes,” said Mr. Hoye in a statement.
Ms. Warren has been haunted during her 2018 Senate campaign by her previous claims to Cherokee ancestry, although she is not an enrolled member of any tribe, spurred by Mr. Trump’s “Pocahontas” nickname.
One of her Senate opponents, Independent candidate Shiva Ayyadurai, has run on the slogan, “Only a real Indian can defeat the fake Indian.”
Ms. Warren has come under pressure to resolve questions about her heritage by taking a DNA test, but she has instead sought to enhance her relationships with tribes.
“Every time someone brings up my family’s story, I’m going to use it to lift up the story of your families and your communities,” she told Native Americans at the February event.
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