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Taunton approves casino proposal

Victory is first for gambling in a Mass. vote

TAUNTON — City voters endorsed a proposed Mashpee Wampanoag tribal casino in a nonbinding referendum on Saturday, marking the first ballot box victory in Massachusetts for the gambling industry since the state legalized Las Vegas-style casinos in 2011.

More than 62 percent of city voters supported the tribe’s proposal to build a $500 million gambling resort at the junctions of Routes 24 and 140.

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The vote was 7,693 to 4,571, according to unofficial numbers from the city clerk’s office. About 37 percent of the city’s 33,000 registered voters participated in the unusual single-question referendum.

The Taunton vote comes after Freetown and Lakeville voters rejected a casino proposed by the Wampanoag of Aquinnah. Foxborough voters rebuffed a gambling resort proposal in May by electing anticasino candidates to the Board of Selectmen.

“We are overwhelmed by this resounding victory in Taunton, especially in comparison to the recent rejection of gaming in Foxborough and other neighboring communities,” Cedric Cromwell, the Mashpee Wampanoag chairman, said in a statement. “But let’s be clear, this is not just a victory for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, this is a victory for the future of this city, for every person looking for a good job, and for the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

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The win does not guarantee that a tribal casino will be built in Taunton, but the public support keeps the proposal on track.

The tribe is in ongoing negotiations with Governor Deval Patrick over how the casino would be regulated and how much money in state taxes, if any, it would pay. Even though the vote was not binding under the law, a defeat would have been seen as a serious setback that probably would have disrupted those negotiations.

“We’ll enjoy this victory tonight, but our work isn’t done,” Cromwell noted. “First thing Monday morning, we’ll be back at it, working to finalize a compact with Governor Patrick so we can create thousands of jobs and millions in revenue as soon as possible.”

Opponents noted after the vote that the Mashpee had committed $300,000 toward a public campaign to build support for its plans, far outspending the opposition.

“We went up against absolutely insurmountable odds,” said casino opponent Michelle Littlefield. “They had a well-oiled, well-funded political machine.”

Littlefield said the fight will go on, and that the opposition will turn its efforts against the tribe’s application to have the federal government take the land for the casino into trust for the tribe.

The Mashpee cannot build a casino until they have land in trust. “This is a long way from over,” she said.

Voters who said they supported the project cited the potential economic benefits on Saturday.

Norman Macomber, 81, cast his vote in favor of the casino, despite not having much luck as a gambler.

“I do go sometimes [to the casino] and I always lose, but I still voted yes,” Macomber said. Despite his losses, he thinks the city would prosper from the large-scale development. “There is going to be a lot of opposition, but it should pass for the good of the city,” he said.

Morris O’Keefe, 47, who works at a beer distributor, supported the casino because he believes the project would benefit his business, as well as the community.

The downtown Taunton resident does not live near the proposed casino site, but would vote the same way even if he did, he said. “I would be more concerned about my property taxes and property values, but I would still support it because Taunton needs the money.”

Closer to the site, Tanya Muldoon, a 31-year-old East Taunton resident, voted no, saying the project would be too close to East Taunton Elementary, which her 5-year-old son will attend in the fall.

“I love Taunton, and I’m going to do what I can to stop this,” she said. “We do need the jobs, but there has to be something more productive in the area.”

Even with the successful vote, the tribe faces a long road to approval. The Mashpee are pursuing a tribal casino, which are approved by the federal government in a process only open to federally recognized tribes. That process is outside of the jurisdiction of the state gambling commission, which controls the development of commercial casinos in Massachusetts.

The Mashpee face uncertainty about whether the federal government will take the proposed Taunton casino site into trust for the tribe. The process could take years and require an act of Congress.

Globe correspondent Alejandra Matos contributed to this report. Mark Arsenault can be reached a marsenault@globe.com

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