Gambling aims at a home here


Gaming will abuse the people and sully the government of Massachusetts. But, in a collaboration between the legislature and Gov. Deval Patrick, the casino bill that became law permits as many as three casinos in Massachusetts, and one of them, in the southeastern part of the state, is temporarily reserved for a federally recognized tribe. The law did not contemplate a gambling casino on Martha’s Vineyard.

Now, the leaders of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, Aquinnah have announced their plans to convert a vacant, unfinished, rundown building intended as a tribe community center and built for them by citizen soldiers whose work was underwritten by taxpayers, to a gambling facility. This week the tribe flourished a federal legal opinion which holds that it has the right under federal law to host gambling on sovereign land it controls in Aquinnah.

This opinion by lawyers at the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) is certainly not approval of the tribe’s announced plans, as the tribe’s leaders pretend, but it will form an important element in the defense the tribe will make to lawsuits that will argue that the Wampanoag Tribe, in its 1983 agreement with the town of Aquinnah (then Gay Head), the state of Massachusetts, and an association of Aquinnah non-resident taxpayers, promised to abide by town, regional, and state regulations governing development and use, even on its sovereign lands. Gambling parlors are not contemplated in those zoning and development rules.

As Aquinnah counsel Ron Rappaport has advised repeatedly, the combination of state and federal laws and the 1983 Settlement Agreement, plus state Supreme Court decisions, will preclude a casino on Martha’s Vineyard. The view Mr. Rappaport expresses will underpin the defense that will certainly be mounted by Islanders generally against the creation of a Class II gambling parlor in Aquinnah.

There is reason to have faith in Mr. Rappaport’s judgment, not least of which is that his view has been consistently supported despite small-scale efforts by the tribe to escape the restrictions its members agreed to 30 years ago. Still, unwavering vigilance will be required of Vineyarders who abhor the notion of casino gambling getting a foothold on this Island.

Most important to the effort to repel such degradation, given the pusillanimity of Massachusetts politicians, is that, without question, geography, inaccessibility, and the political Balkanization of Martha’s Vineyard serve us well. A casino here is liable to be a very pesky enterprise indeed, and financially unattractive.

That view suggests that the tribe’s expressed determination to build a casino here may be part of the jockeying now underway to carve a place for the Wampanoag tribe in the casino future on the mainland. The federal lawyers’ legal opinion is now a lever that the tribe will use to further its gambling ambitions.

But, unless the Aquinnah tribe’s chief goal of a Southeastern Massachusetts casino comes to fruition, a legal attack to find a way through the terms of the Settlement Agreement, the state Supreme Judicial Court holdings, and the federal Indian Gaming Act provisions may be launched to make casino gambling in Aquinnah possible. And state government, looking for a way to end the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah’s persistent legal interference with the state licensing process for mainland casinos, may not be the Vineyard’s staunchest ally in the coming struggle.

Governor Patrick’s exclusion of the Aquinnah tribe from participating in negotiations for a mainland gaming foothold — difficult to understand given the record of federal law and the 1983 agreement — has given an uncertain spur to the notion of a casino on Martha’s Vineyard.

To those who criticize the drive for Massachusetts to get into the casino business, this is all troubling. But, no matter which side of the casino issue one joins, this history suggests that it is the professional gaming industry investors and the State House politicians who befriend and truckle to them who will ultimately control the future of high stakes gaming in the Commonwealth, and maybe here.

Sunday’s election to choose a chairman of the Wampanoag tribe ought to be watched carefully by Vineyarders. A significant share of the tribe’s eligible voters are Aquinnah residents devoted to their town. They are Island residents devoted to the Island and their neighbors in all of its towns. They may be counted on to choose leaders who reflect their values, and we must hope they prevail.