August 18, 2019

As casino vote looms, tribes’ bitterness lingers

PORTLAND – Maine’s Indian tribes have tried three times to have laws passed so they could build a casino in the state. Three times they’ve failed.

There’s a lingering bitterness among many tribal members as Mainers prepare to vote Tuesday on whether to allow a casino under the operation of a Las Vegas company.

This is the second time Mainers will have voted on a casino that isn’t being proposed by either the Penobscot Indian Nation or the Passamaquoddy Tribe. The first time, back in 2003, voters approved a ballot question that allowed for the Hollywood Slots casino and its 1,000 slot machines in Bangor while rejecting a separate proposal for a tribal casino.

Wayne Mitchell, the Penobscot representative to the Legislature, didn’t vote on the casino question when he cast an early ballot for Tuesday’s election. That decision, he said, should be left to Oxford County residents to decide.

But tribal members can’t help but feel resentment that they can’t build a casino when others can, Mitchell said.

“We’ve lived through so much adversity, put up with so much racism and discrimination – economic discrimination – that we’re numb to that sort of thing now,” he said.

Question 2 on Tuesday’s ballot asks whether voters favor allowing a casino to be built in Oxford County. Olympia Gaming of Las Vegas is proposing a $184 million resort in the town of Oxford that would include a 300-room hotel, a conference center, restaurants and a casino with up to 1,500 slot machines and a variety of table games.

The first time Mainers voted on a casino was five years ago, when the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes floated a referendum proposing a $650 million casino and resort in Sanford. After a costly and contentious campaign, Mainers rejected the proposal by a 2-to-1 ratio.

In that same election, however, voters gave the thumbs up to another referendum pushed by Las Vegas businessman Shawn Scott allowing for slot machines at harness racing tracks. The vote allowed Penn National Gaming to build the Hollywood Slots racino in Bangor.

A year ago, voters again rejected a statewide referendum calling for a casino and resort in eastern Maine, to be operated by the Passamaquoddy Tribe.

And earlier this year, the Legislature approved a bill to allow 100 slot machines on the Penobscot reservation near Old Town, only to have the governor veto it.

Neither tribe has taken a public stance on the Oxford casino, but several Penobscot members said the vote is stirring up painful memories of past casino efforts. Leaders of the Passamaquoddy Tribe did not return phone calls for comment.

Leading up to this election, Barry Dana has heard from many tribal members who oppose the Oxford casino. Dana is a former Penobscot chief who served as the public face of the tribes in the 2003 campaign for the Sanford casino.

“No one has said to me they have anything against Oxford County. They just don’t feel it’s right for the tribes to be kicked in the face and then have somebody else go ahead and get it,” said Dana, who lives in Solon. He declined to say how he would vote.

Many Indians still scratch their heads at Gov. John Baldacci’s stand on gambling, Dana said. How can the governor veto slot machine legislation for the tribe and speak out against casinos while expanding the state’s lottery operations to include Powerball, he asked.

“You cannot tell me that Powerball is not gaming,” Dana said. “If you go into a little store and see all the scratch tickets people buy, they’re basically slot machines on paper. Gambling is gambling.”

Donna Loring, a former longtime Penobscot tribal representative, said she’s voting yes on the Oxford casino. If voters approve the measure, she thinks the Legislature should rewrite the law, “tax the hell out of them” and then give the tribes a percentage of the cut.

After all, it was the tribes who paved the way for casinos in Maine when they brought the Sanford plan to the public in 2003, Loring said.

“It was our idea in the first place and it’s only fair we gain something out of the process,” she said.

Pat LaMarche, spokeswoman for Olympia Gaming, said the casino developers met with tribal leaders last winter. “We went and sat down and basically said, ‘Tell us what you want,”‘ she said.

If voters approve the Oxford casino, LaMarche said, she wouldn’t have any problem if the final version of the law included a provision to give the tribes a percent of the revenues, along with state agencies that would be up for shares.

But not everybody is so sure that’s a good idea.

Mitchell said the better answer is to let the tribes decide for themselves.

“We’ve been told more than once that what’s good for the state and what’s good for Bangor in high-stakes gambling is not good for the tribes,” he said. “As long as it’s non-native and a non-Indian enterprise, it’s always a good thing, it seems, from our perspective. And that’ll probably never change.”

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