The Big Gamble

By Jason Schwartz | Boston Magazine |

IT’S A BRIGHT, cloudless mid-September day on Cape Cod. A generation ago, this is the type of day that, if the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian tribe were holding a council meeting and it turned out the herring were running, someone might have sprinted by with the news, sending everyone scurrying down to the water. But there’s no time for that now: The Mashpee have business to attend to. So the tribal leaders and a handful of their supporters are crammed inside a conference room in a trailer that’s been parked alongside their too-small office building in the town of Mashpee.

The occasion for today’s gathering is a ceremony to announce the closing of a $12.7 million loan that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has given the tribe to build a 40,000-square-foot community center. The new building will have a lounge for elders, a hangout for kids, much-needed office space (goodbye, trailer), and spots for events and social get-togethers. Cedric Cromwell, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribal council chairman, stands at the head of the room, smiling like he’s just won the lottery as he talks about “a renaissance time” for his people. It’s been four years since the tribe was officially recognized by the U.S. government, and in that time alone the Mashpee Wampanoags have been to hell and back. But now, things are finally looking up.

With bags under his eyes, Cromwell looks at once exhausted and buoyed. He’s been getting only three or four hours of sleep a night, he says later, and has trouble keeping track of all the various government and bank officials assembled before him. One name he has no problem with, though, is Mark Forest, the executive director of the Delahunt Group, a lobbying firm run by retired Congressman Bill Delahunt, whose district included the Cape. The tribe hired Delahunt in March, and, according to state records, paid his firm $40,000 between then and June (more recent records aren’t available). Midway through Cromwell’s presentation, Delahunt himself strolls in, looking every bit the retired congressman in khakis and a billowy yellow button-down shirt.

After Cromwell finishes his speech, Delahunt walks up to and embraces one of the tribe’s chiefs (these days, chief is a ceremonial position, usually reserved for elders). It’s a nice scene, but also a reminder of the tribal elders who are not at today’s celebration. Among the no-shows is Chief Earl Mills, who happens to believe that, Department of Agriculture loan or not, Cromwell is leading the tribe to ruin. The hard feelings aren’t really about the community center, of course — not any more than the presence of the big-money lobbyists. Like so much for the Mashpee lately, this is all about one thing: chasing a casino.

Just two days earlier, the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a bill that would massively expand gambling in the state, allowing for three casinos and one slots parlor. The bill splits the state into three zones and designates one casino license for each. In two of the zones, the license will go to ordinary commercial bidders, but the proposed legislation stipulates that the license in the southeastern zone be reserved for a federally recognized Indian tribe — which basically means the Mashpee. The bill (which by press time had been sent to the desk of the governor, who has said he will sign it), arranges for the Mashpee to get the license provided they can do three very difficult things, all by July 31, 2012. They must buy the land they need for their casino; get the town where the land is to pass a local referendum authorizing gambling; and come to an agreement with Governor Deval Patrick regarding how much of the casino’s profits will go to the state. If the tribe fails to accomplish all of that by the deadline, the license will go up for bid like the other two.

 Illustration by Justin Metz