The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe made a strong moral case that it deserved a head start in the casino race in Southeastern Massachusetts. But the tribe has been unable to capitalize on the leg up it was granted in the 2011 legislation. Now, it is lashing out at the state Gaming Commission for opening the process to other bidders. This misstep could backfire against the tribe, and it ought to tone down its rhetoric now.
The casino legislation gave Native American tribes a year-long exclusive window to win the Southeastern Massachusetts casino license, one of three licenses in the state. In practice, only the Mashpee Wampanoag were in a position to cobble together a casino deal in that time frame. Lawmakers saw the provision as a way to help the tribe, which has suffered from centuries of poverty and oppression, without simply reserving a license for them.
But now that time is up — and then some. In fact, the commission extended the window past the original deadline spelled out in the law. The Mashpee did take many of the necessary steps by acquiring land and reaching a revenue-sharing compact with the state. (Federal officials later rejected the compact.) But they have been unable to get the federal government to designate the tribe’s land in Taunton as a reservation.
That failure isn’t the tribe’s fault — but neither is it the commission’s. Still, the tribe launched an ad campaign that lambasted the commission’s members as unaccountable and accused them of endangering jobs. Tribal chairman Cedric Cromwell released a statement blasting the commission after the Thursday vote.
These attacks are unfair. It’s true the commission’s members are appointed, but that protects the process from just the kind of political interference the tribe tried to exert. And if the purpose of allowing casinos is to create jobs, opening the bidding to other applicants will further that goal more than waiting indefinitely for the Mashpee to obtain a reservation. Besides, nothing in the commission’s action prevents the tribe from continuing to seek a casino; they just are no longer guaranteed a monopoly in their region.
As a political matter, too, attacking the commissioners was the wrong strategy. The commission should of course be subject to careful scrutiny, and if legitimate complaints about its integrity arise they should be aired. But criticizing the commissioners for doing their jobs risks undoing the careful work the tribe did to win public support.