The Big Gamble

By Jason Schwartz | Boston Magazine |

THAT’S A SURPRISING level of confidence from someone who says, “I’m not a gambling man.” Casinos aren’t really Cromwell’s thing — actually, risk isn’t his thing. “When I walk across the street, I try to make sure that there are not too many cars,” he says. “I’m a business person and a leader of a tribal nation.” And the casino, as Cromwell and most of the tribe believe, is a good deal for the Mashpee.

The big question is whether Cromwell will be able to get his tribe solidly enough behind him so that he doesn’t have to worry about making political decisions related to a casino — just business ones. The question looms large, since the Mashpee will need to set up a corporate governance for their gaming enterprise, which would be entirely separate from their tribal government. They will also have to wrestle with how casino profits will be allocated. How much to social services? How much to their lenders? How much straight to individuals?

“You’re not going to be able to tell 100 percent of the people to line up and do this, it just doesn’t happen in America,” Cromwell says. “We have a strong circle of people and we’re all connected as being Mashpee Wampanoag, so that’s never going to change.”

As Barrow, the UMass Dartmouth expert, points out, division within a tribe can sometimes lead to problems in casino endeavors. Just look to the south. “In Foxwoods, tribal politics is the casino. It’s made it much more difficult to manage,” he says. “They’ve made political decisions instead of business decisions.” In the middle of an economic downturn, Foxwoods pledged to its Pequot tribe members that their per capita dividend payments would under no circumstance be cut. Angry creditors freaked out. “Financial markets went nuts,” Barrow says. The payments were soon eliminated anyway. Foxwoods also opened its new MGM Grand during the recession. “That was part of the policy of the tribe: build, build, build,” Barrow says. “It was really a political idea, not a business idea.” Mohegan Sun, on the other hand, has better separated politics from business. As a result, Barrow says, the Mohegans have weathered the recession more cleanly than their neighbors.

That all these questions are even on the table is more than a little astounding to longtime tribe members, who can recall the days — and they weren’t that long ago — when maintaining fishing and hunting rights were the tribe’s main concern. Paula Peters is as deeply entwined in the tribe’s history as anyone around: Her father was the original tribal chair, and he served, with a few gaps, from 1972 to 1999. She once served on the tribal council herself, and in 2005 she ran unsuccessfully against Glenn Marshall. She’s also married to Mark Harding, the current tribe treasurer, and counts herself as a supporter of Cromwell. According to her, everything in the tribe started to change in the bitter Marshall years. “I’ve been a part of it since I was 12 years old,” she says. “I can recall that, politically, people would disagree, but it didn’t split families, it didn’t split the town, it didn’t split the tribe. And now, that’s the difference.”

But it wasn’t just Marshall that was the problem: It was the casino. The prospect of those bright, glitzy lights and a steady cash flow has done more than any one person could to change the tribe. “Absolutely, it’s the money!” Peters says. She originally opposed the idea of a casino, but has since come to grips with it being the will of the majority of the tribe. “When people asked me, ‘Why did you vote against it?’ I would say, ‘It’s gonna be ugly, it’s gonna bring out the worst in us.’ And there it is.”