Sen. Elizabeth Warren has boosted her standing with the Mashpee Wampanoag for her bill clearing the way for a tribal casino, but not with Rhode Island Democrats.
The Massachusetts Democrat has unleashed an intraparty border war with Rhode Island lawmakers over the legislation as she fights her “Pocahontas” problem by embracing American Indian causes.
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, is leading the charge against the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act, sponsored by Ms. Warren and the Bay State delegation, that would allow the tribe to build a $1 billion casino in Taunton, Massachusetts.
The problem? If approved, the proposed First Light Resort and Casino is expected to divert millions of dollars from Rhode Island’s two casinos, the Twin Rivers in Lincoln and Twin Rivers in Tiverton, both near the Massachusetts border.
“It’s pure financial self-interest,” said Clyde W. Barrow, a political science professor at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley. “Casino gambling is the third-largest source of state revenue for Rhode Island, so they are very dependent on their two gaming facilities.”
The issue has placed Ms. Warren at loggerheads with two Democratic allies, Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, who have signaled their disapproval, albeit quietly. Neither returned a call for comment.
A spokesman for Mr. Reed told the Providence Journal, “The entire delegation has made its opposition to this bill well known to their colleagues.”
Ms. Raimondo has an ace up her sleeve: Carcieri v. Salazar, the 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found that only tribes recognized as of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act could qualify for land taken in trust by the federal government, a prerequisite for Indian gambling.
Ms. Warren’s bill would leapfrog the ruling and allow the federal government to take 321 acres into trust for a reservation, even though the Mashpee were not recognized until 2007.
“[I]f passed, the bill would allow the Mashpee to bypass the well-settled Indian Reorganization Act and have land taken into trust for purposes of operating a resort casino in Taunton,” Ms. Raimondo said in a letter last month to President Trump and key House committee members.
Her letter, delivered by Rep. David N. Cicilline, Rhode Island Democrat, argued that the bill would “directly undermine decisions” of not only the Supreme Court but also the Interior Department, which admitted defeat this month in its two-year search for a legal avenue for a Mashpee reservation.
The department concluded that it could not take land into trust on the Mashpees’ behalf, affirming a 2016 ruling by U.S. District Judge William G. Young, who blocked Interior’s previous determination to approve the land-in-trust application.
Ms. Warren and Sen. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, said the administration’s decision “underscores why Congress must pass our legislation: so that the Mashpee Wampanoag do not lose their home at the hands of the federal government.”
Rep. William R. Keating, Massachusetts Democrat, acknowledged the Rhode Island concerns but said the issue is “much more important than that.”
“It’s about the very survival of the tribe of the first Thanksgiving,” Mr. Keating, who sponsored the House bill, told the Journal. “It’s a basic question of what is right and wrong.”
The Mashpee bills remain stalled in committee, although the House legislation drew favorable comments at a July 24 Natural Resources subcommittee hearing.
The Rhode Island senators have come under pressure to do more amid suspicions that they have held back to avoid crossing swords with Ms. Warren, a potential 2020 Democratic presidential contender.
“Rhode Island and its businesses depend on those who represent the state to go to bat for them,” said the Journal, the state’s largest newspaper, in a Sept. 9 editorial. “Let us hope the delegation does not put Senator Warren’s political aspirations ahead of the people of Rhode Island. The state’s voters will be watching.”
A market study conducted for the state by Christiansen Capital Advisors projected that Rhode Island would lose $26.2 million in fiscal year 2022 and another $13.7 million in fiscal year 2023 from a Mashpee resort. The two Rhode Island casinos employ about 2,500 people for an annual economic impact of nearly $500 million.
Mr. Barrow said he believes the bill’s odds are slim, with or without the input of the senators from Rhode Island.
“There’s no reason for a Republican Congress to do Massachusetts any favors,” said Mr. Barrow, director of the Northeastern Gaming Research Project. “They view them as a liberal Democratic state, so why are they going to do anything to help them?”
Then there’s the White House. “I think also that President Trump has a very long history of speaking out against Indian gaming, so if it even got through Congress, he’d probably veto it just on principle,” Mr. Barrow said.
David Tennant, attorney for the East Taunton residents who sued to stop the casino, said he worries that the sponsors would try to sneak the legislation into an omnibus bill before the end of the year, although he said it would be difficult.
“All I can tell you is that all of Indian Country was following this case with Interior’s decision, and there are a lot of interests in the gaming community that are affected,” Mr. Tennant said. “I think it’s going to be hard for the Mashpee bill to be slipped in with nobody noticing. There’s just too much attention being paid to this.”
Ms. Warren vowed in February to redouble her efforts on behalf of American Indians in response to Mr. Trump’s dubbing of her as “Pocahontas” over her unproven claims of Cherokee ancestry. She and Mr. Markey introduced the Senate bill in March.