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No Dice

SHE CAME to spin a tale of woe. A year ago last March, Beverly Wright, tribal chairperson of the Aquinnah Wampanoags of Martha’s Vineyard, took the witness seat at a small table before the National Gaming Impact Study Commission in Boston. Wright was there to tell the presidentially-appointed commissioners that for her tribe, gambling represented hope in a dark world.

A petite woman in fashionable clothes, Wright testified that her tribe had “difficulty living a decent life in our ancestral homeland of Gay Head, where land now sells for $100,000 an acre.” Many Wampanoags, she said, were too poor to afford the island’s expensive rents. She worked six days a week scrounging money to give tribal members “such basic needs as medical assistance, housing and heat.”

While critics carped that the Wampanoags could find other ways besides gambling to solve their problems, Wright testified that no one had ever suggested a viable alternative. Faced with dire circumstances, Wright said that the gambling facility that her tribe hoped to build on the mainland at Fall River, Massachusetts, was “essential to our continued existence.”

Her performance, recounted in the next day’s papers, amazed many Vineyard Wampanoags, including June Manning, Ryan Malonson, and Gladys Widdis, an 84-year-old who had led the tribe during its fight for federal recognition in the 1980s. They didn’t recognize themselves in Wright’s description, which sounded doubly ludicrous coming from a woman who owned four homes on the island, was building another, and was called Imelda by some tribal members because she had so many shoes.

Yes, the Wampanoags had felt the sting of racism and neglect throughout their history on the Vineyard, but for generations they had controlled their town, Gay Head (now called Aquinnah), and their destiny. “We have never depended on anyone else to take care of us,” says Gladys Widdis. “A little bit of it is stubbornness,” says Malonson, “and a lot of it is pride.”

Most of the Wampanoags whom Wright described as too poor to afford the island’s rents were homeowners who moved in with relatives during the summer high season so they could rent their places to tourists for $2,000 a week. Some tribal members, including Wright, owned and rented more than one home. They weren’t surprised that she knew the price of land; she and her husband would soon buy nearly three acres for more than $350,000, and begin building what Manning called “a starter castle” with five bedrooms.

As for Wampanoag desperation, Manning and Widdis couldn’t think of anyone healthy on the island who wasn’t working. Many Wampanoags were self-employed. They worked as plumbers, electricians, charter boat owners, fishermen, construction workers, mechanics, engineers, real estate agents, policemen.

Their children worked hard, too. The high-school dropout rate was under one percent. A large proportion of them went on to college. “Most of us have two nice cars,” says Manning. “We take good vacations. Our kids go to good schools. We’re not impoverished people.”

“I think every Gay Head Wampanoag should be ashamed of the way Beverly has portrayed us,” says Widdis. “It started as a lie and it continued as a lie--that we’re destitute and can’t make money any other way.”

As for Wright’s assertion that no critic had proposed an alternative to Wampanoag gambling, she evidently had forgotten the initiatives coming from her own tribe—for instance, the $2 million that her predecessor had negotiated from NYNEX for cellular telephone rights. At the time of Wright’s testimony, the Wampanoags were finishing a deal to buy Alley’s Store, a landmark grocery in West Tisbury. They would soon begin negotiations to buy its sister store, Back Alley’s, for a price in the six-figures. A new shellfish hatchery was almost ready. Within a year the tribe would spend about $500,000 to buy land for a Sears franchise on the island.

“These four businesses are expected to bring in more than $4 million a year,” says Manning, “but that’s not enough for Beverly.”

And then there was the huge untapped resource that most tribes couldn’t even dream of: every summer 250,000 tourists visit the Wampanoags’ cliffs at Aquinnah. As Gladys Widdis put it, “You have to be stupid to have all these people come to your doorstep and not make any money.” She and others, such as her son Donald, the tribal chairman before Beverly, once hoped to build a tourist and conference center at the cliffs. That idea got discarded when Wright changed the focus to gambling. Now eight small souvenir shops dotted the cliffs, six of them sublet to non-Indians by their Wampanoag owners, including Wright.

But Wright had to portray her tribe as poor and desperate. Federal law said that tribes could turn to gambling only if they had no other means of economic development. Wright had been pushing the Wampanoags towards gambling since the early 1990s when she made a deal with Carnival Resorts and Casinos, a subsidiary of Carnival Cruise Lines: Carnival would provide the money to lobby for and build a gambling facility; the tribe would provide the wedge of Indian sovereignty that might crack Massachusetts' laws against high-stakes gambling.

The problem was where to build it. For a casino plan to work, the Wampanoags and Carnival needed someplace desperate. They needed a place like Fall River.

FALL RIVER is a factory town that still prides itself on being a community of hardworking blue-collar laborers, mostly immigrants from the Portuguese Azores. Even in the late ‘90s, about 60 percent of Fall River’s 91,000 people are Portuguese-Americans, and you can hear the language wherever you go.

But decades of industrial decline have rocked Fall River. Recessions and the move to off-shore manufacturing decimated the city’s traditional employment base in recent times. The new “high tech” jobs that are pumping up the economy elsewhere often require education and training that the city’s workforce doesn’t have. Less than half of the adult population are high school graduates. The median level of education is ninth grade, among the lowest in the state. For most of the decade, the unemployment rate had been stuck in the double digits, and the usual domino effects had followed. Main Street grew more and more shabby. The modest mall there became an empty shell of dark shops.

By the time Beverly Wright told the federal gambling commission about the Wampanoags’ dire straits, Fall River seemed ready for desperate measures. When the Wampanoags came calling with a casino plan, the city’s leaders jumped at it.

The proposal that became public in 1997 was simple: Fall River would declare its abandoned municipal airport “blighted” and sell it to the tribe for “urban renewal.” With expert legal help from Carnival, the Wampanoags would have the airport declared sovereign Indian territory, opening the way for a $25 million high-stakes bingo hall to be followed a few years later by a full-scale casino. In return for ceding 36 acres of itself to the tribe forever, Fall River would receive at least $250,000 a year or one percent of the gross from the operation’s tax-free revenue.

By March 1998, Mayor Edward M. Lambert Jr, and Kenneth Fiola Jr., the head of Fall River’s Office of Economic Development, had finalized the deal with the Wampanoags. They handed the city council a thick purchase-and-sales agreement, calling for the tribe to pay $1 million for 36 acres, with an option on 20 more for the expected expansion to a full casino; $1.5 million to build a new fire station; and $1 million to upgrade streets. The tribe would build a bingo hall with 1,200 seats. The mayor hoped for quick approval.

For Lambert and Fiola, getting this far had been a triumph. When they first floated their “sell the airport” plan, questions were raised at public hearings about the plan’s legality. Others worried about the social consequences of putting a casino in town. Most of the city’s largest employers opposed it. But Mayor Lambert and Fiola insisted that unless the proposed purchase-and-sale agreement with the Wampanoags was approved, Fall River’s future looked bleak. All but one of the nine city councilors seemed to agree, and so did the tendentious local newspaper, the Herald-News, and the radio station, WSAR. The lone gambling opponent on the city council, Joseph Camara, looked powerless.

This was not Fall River’s first attempt to legalize gambling. Back in 1993, local businessmen and a Las Vegas company named Circus Circus floated the idea of a riverboat casino in Fall River. The riverboat died when the Massachusetts legislature killed it along with the other pro-gambling bills that popped up every session. But Fall River voters had supported the riverboat in a nonbinding referendum by a margin of nearly 2-1. Gambling companies took note. To them, the Fall River referendum was an invitation.

Actually Fall River was a second choice for the Wampanoags and Carnival. In the spring of 1997, the Massachusetts House had overwhelmingly rejected Governor William Weld’s 1995 “compact” with the Wampanoags, which would have allowed the tribe to build a $175 million casino in New Bedford, another depressed mill town. A high-stakes bingo parlor in Fall River became their fallback plan. A casino, however, remained their long-term goal. Talks between the city administration and the tribe regarding the airport sell-off progressed rapidly.

By the fall of 1997, the Wampanaogs had the city council’s okay on the preliminary plan to sell the airport. However, the approval of one state agency was critical. The urban renewal aspect had to be approved by the state Department of Housing and Community Development, based on three criteria. Was it legal? Was it funded? And lastly, could Fall River prove that the land was “blighted”?

The financial question was easy; Carnival’s pockets were deep. But Attorney General Scott Harshbarger had already said that a Wampanoag gambling facility would break Massachusetts law. On the other hand, the then acting-governor, Paul Celluci, supported the tribe, as did the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

Although Fall River had been touting the airport only months before as prime industrial land next to a four-lane highway, Mayor Lambert and Fiola now declared the site blighted. In December 1997, the state Department of Housing approved the plan.

Nearly home now, Lambert and Fiola had the final purchase agreement with the Wampanoags before City Council by March. Because Fall River would be selling part of itself, the city charter required the council to approve the sale by a two-thirds majority. Six of the nine members had to vote yes. That seemed like a lock, since Camara was the only gambling opponent on council.

But in the community, the opposition was picking up steam, generated by a housewife named Lisa Plante. “I’m a shy person,” she says in a soft voice full of hesitations, “but I just got damn mad.” She rejuvenated the old anti-riverboat coalition, “Stop the Casino,” and began to hold rallies and bring in speakers such as Reverend Tom Grey of the National Coalition Against Gambling, and an Arizona lawyer named Alexis Johnson, known for fighting—on constitutional grounds—Indian land annexation and Gambling.

Plante dove into the campaign almost in spite of herself, and despite the guilt she felt that the family laundry was piling up and the meals she served were often rushed. But she didn’t want a casino in her town and she refused to be bulldozed.

ON THE VINEYARD, tribal members had many of the same complaints about Beverly Wright and Carnival. Details were vague and decisions were being made on the run. Whenever the people from Carnival flew in, says Ryan Malonson, “It was always, ‘We only have 25 minutes--yes or no? We gotta go catch a jet.’”

The Wampanoags had their own legal questions. In 1987, after years of lawsuits and paperwork, the Gay Head Wampanoags had received federal recognition and 450 acres on Martha’s Vineyard, their homeland. In return the tribe signed a “Land Claims Settlement Act” with Massachusetts, in which they dropped other land claims and agreed to abide by all Massachusetts laws, including laws banning high-stakes gambling.

But Wright and the lawyers paid for by Carnival contended that the agreement was superseded by the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) of 1988. Massachusetts’ Attorney General Scott Harshbarger strongly disagreed, and vowed to sue if the Wampanoags tried to open a high-stakes emporium. But even if Wright was correct, IGRA still required the tribe to get approval from the governor and the state legislature. At the time, this looked doubtful.

Manning and Widdis were also uneasy about the millions of dollars Carnival and its lawyers were charging off to the tribe. What if the casino dream came to nothing and Carnival demanded its money back? Manning remembered the time Sherwood “Woody” Weiser, CEO of Carnival Resorts and Casinos, hired a private jet to fly to the Vineyard, then sent the tribe a bill for $9,000.

A few days after Wright’s testimony in Boston, the tribal council unenthusiastically approved the purchase-and-sales agreement that was pending before Fall River’s city council. Of the 11 members, only nine showed up for this crucial vote. Two of those abstained and two voted no. So with five yes votes--less than a majority of its own tribal council--the Wampanoags agreed to gamble on the future in Fall River.

The gambling plan also pitted Vineyard Wampanoags against tribal members who lived off-island. Of the tribe’s 900 members, about 100 lived in Aquinnah, with another 200-250 elsewhere on the island. The Vineyard group, especially those rooted in Aquinnah, considered themselves the true keepers of the tribe’s culture and heritage. Yet most of Wright’s supporters lived off-island, many in New Bedford. They showed up to vote for Wright and her plans, then left, and didn’t participate in tribal affairs until the next time Wright needed their votes.

“The people who voted for Beverly are looking for a handout,” says Manning. “These people have nothing to do with the tribe except for gambling. Nothing. If the elections and the vote had been just for Aquinnah residents, Beverly would not have gotten in and gaming would not have passed.”

BACK IN FALL RIVER, the pro-gambling majority on city council was unraveling. Two councilmen, Paul Hart and Mark Gustafson, announced that after studying the purchase-and-sales agreement, they would join Joseph Camara in voting against it. The mayor was shocked, but five council members remained adamantly pro-casino; he only needed one more for the necessary two-thirds majority. That left Steven Walsh as the crucial swing vote. Walsh had voted yes on the urban renewal plan. The mayor expected Walsh to vote yes on the purchase agreement.

In the week before the vote, Walsh got hundreds of phone calls. People filled up his answering machine at work every day, and both machines at home. Ninety-nine percent of the callers opposed the deal. Walsh didn’t call anyone back, including the mayor. No one knew what he was thinking.

On the night of the vote, the room was packed. Union members carried signs saying, “Bingo Means Jobs.” Walsh spent hours questioning the city’s lawyer about the agreement. At 10:00 the council’s president finally called for a vote, in alphabetical order. Walsh was last. When he said, “No,” the room erupted with shouts of anger and triumph.

Fiola walked out. “It’s pitiful, it’s shameful,” said Tony Oliveira, the blustery founder of a pro-casino group called BINGO. “This council refused to do the will of the people.” Mayor Lambert said the vote baffled him, and that the opponents had “changed their minds for no apparent reason.”

But Walsh had his reasons. The only attorney on council, he had been troubled by the legality of the Wampanoag’s gambling “rights” and the agreement’s “reverter” clause. Supposedly the Wampanoag land would revert to the city if the gambling project failed and the tribe didn’t replace it with businesses equally valuable to Fall River, yet the BIA had never allowed a tribe to declare land sovereign territory if it could be taken away later.

But Walsh also had been concerned about turning away new jobs for Fall River, and the tribe was promising 500 bingo jobs. So he called Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut, which had started as a high-stakes bingo hall, and learned that the Pequots’ original hall held 1,800 players—600 more than the Wampanoags’ would—and had employed only 75 people.

Two days after the council’s vote, Mayor Lambert called for a special referendum to overrule the decision. It would take a third of Fall River’s 45,000 registered voters to overrule the decision. Getting such a turn-out would be extremely difficult, but pro-gambling passions were running so high, nothing seemed impossible.

For the next month, the two sides slugged it out all over town--in the newspaper, on the radio, at rallies, and in coffee-shops. Politics are personal in Fall River. “You’re walking the streets of your hometown and having people come up and yell in your face,” says one of the anti-gambling councilors, Paul Hart. “But I got just as many calls from the other side.”

Councilor Gustafson, who had disparaged the sales agreement as “tapioca,” found a tub of the stuff on his front lawn one morning. Someone began dumping old lottery tickets in Linda Plante’s yard.

As election day approached, both sides felt confident. Everyone in town knew what was at stake. May 26 was a beautiful spring day, ideal for getting out the vote, but the outcome was clear the second the polls closed. Only 15,821 voters had turned out. The “Yes” side needed a minimum of 15,155 votes to win and ended up with only 8,526. (The “No” side pulled 7,295.) Fall River’s other 29,000 registered voters either weren’t interested or tacitly voted no.

Nevertheless, the pro-gambling forces declared it a rousing victory for democracy and called for the city council to follow the will of “the majority.” The Herald-News encouraged Lambert to “keep up the good fight.” The opposition wasn’t impressed. “It was far from a victory or an endorsement,” says Walsh. “The only people really required to show up were the yeses—and they didn’t show.”

Two days later Lambert admitted defeat. Tony Oliveiro vowed to mount a recall campaign against the four opposing councilors, but soon dropped it due to lack of interest.

As summer turned into fall and then winter, the gambling fever slowly subsided in Fall River. The city’s unemployment rate dropped from 10 percent to 6 percent, unheard of in recent history. Factory owners complained that open positions were going unfilled. The airport land reverted from “blighted” back to “prime.” Main Street Textiles, a large employer in town, offered to buy 27 acres of it for $1,215,000 and build a new plant with 600 new jobs, all of it taxable and subject to the authority of Fall River and the state. Quaker Fabrics planned a major expansion, with 600 new jobs. Fall River would survive without gambling after all.

On the Vineyard, the Wampanoags were now in debt to Carnival for between $9 million and $10 million. Wright announced that the tribe was scouting new locations for a casino or bingo hall in Massachusetts, probably on private property. In November the tribe narrowly re-elected her and reaffirmed the quest for a casino.

But at the next tribal meeting, Marc Widdis, Gladys’s son, noted that the tribal constitution required the chairperson to be elected by a majority--by more than half of the voters--and Wright hadn’t achieved that in the three-way race. The tribal council, which now included Gladys Widdis, set a new election for February 21. In a counter-move, Wright called a special meeting of the general membership for February 6. She crowded the meeting with her off-island supporters and asked them to overturn the council’s decision. She refused to allow a secret ballot, instructing people to vote by sitting on one side of the room or the other. Wright’s supporters numbered 68. On the other side of the room sat 44 people, including the tribe’s chief and medicine man, five council members, most of the tribal elders, and various tribal officers and employees. “The backbone of our tribe,” says Manning.

Wright didn’t have the two-thirds majority necessary to override the council’s decision, as required by the constitution, but she declared victory and canceled the new election. “She polarized us again,” says Manning. “We’ve wasted $9 million and five years on this gaming. It has just torn this tribe apart.”

Last June, the federal commission that heard Beverly Wright testify about the Wampanoags’ desperate need for gambling issued its report. The National Gambling Impact Study Commission called for a nationwide minimum gambling age of 21 and a ban on Internet gambling. The commission stopped short of recommending a national moratorium on gambling and greater federal regulation of casinos on Indian reservations.

©Steve Kemper. All rights reserved. Cannot be reproduced without consent of the author.

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