Casinos: Indian Trump Card

Yesterday we told you that Donald Trump, a potential bidder for one of the state’s three gambling permits, is currently locked in a billion dollar lawsuit with Richard Fields, owner of Suffolk Downs, who is also a potential bidder.

That’s not the only one Trump could take issue with. There’s a good chance that Trump, who once proclaimed himself, “The biggest enemy of Indian gaming,” will be incensed by the privileges Governor Deval Patrick‘s proposal will grant the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe. And if history is any indication, the Donald tends not to suffer quietly.

Trump’s opposition to tribal gaming stretches back to 1993, when he filed suit against the federal government on grounds that the Indian gaming laws discriminated against him by giving unfair advantages (such as not having to pay taxes) to the tribes. The suit failed, but Trump has more than made his point over the years.

“He has attacked Indian gaming on a number of fronts,” says Kathryn Rand, who co-directs the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy at the University of North Dakota Law School. “He was one of the very early critics of whether newly recognized tribes were actually tribes. He’s attacked the authenticity of tribal members.”

She added that a common trope of his was challenging whether tribes are capable of policing their own casinos. “That some Indian chief is going to tell Joey Killer to get off his reservation is unbelievable,” he once said. In testimony before Congress in 1993, he complained that, “organized crime is rampant on the Indian reservations.”

In 1999, the Globe reported that to combat a casino bid from the Mohawk tribe in upstate New York, Trump secretly paid for a run of ads against them. Fearful that a Catskill casino would threaten his three Atlantic City operations, his ads featured cocaine lines, drug needles and the tagline, ”Are these the new neighbors we want?”

The conditions that so angered Trump in the 90’s seem to be fomenting here in Massachusetts. The Mashpee Wampanoag drive for tribal sovereignty was heavily motivated by their desire to open a casino. Moreover, Patrick has indicated that the tribe will receive preferential treatment in the bidding process. (The current legislation stipulated that gaming licenses will not necessarily go to the highest bidders, but those deemed most qualified–what that means exactly has yet to made fully clear.) If Trump is consistent, this will not sit well with him.

On Indian gaming, however, Trump has been anything but consistent. In 1998, he put aside his qualms with tribal gaming and teamed up with Seminoles in Florida to convince the state to allow them a casino. At the time, the Village Voice opined:

Trump, like many other commercial casino operators, has adopted an if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em posture on reservation gaming. As Jason Ward of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union says, ”The commercial guys are realizing they’re not going to win, and see the future in management contracts” of Indian casinos.

The point was further driven home in 2004, when the New York Times reported that Trump had given $9.1 million to the Eastern Pequots of Connecticut as part of their bid for tribal recognition (read: casinos).

“I think that, like any good businessman, Trump isn’t above exploiting the situation,” Rand says. “Where it makes sense for him to try to partner with tribes, he’s tried to do that. Where it makes sense for him to try to undermine tribes, he’s done that.”

As for how things will unfold in Massachusetts, with the competitive nature of the bidding process for licenses, conflict seems assured. Given Trump’s penchant for public spats (and the likely battle lines between Fields, the Wampanoags, and who knows who else) his entry into the Massachusetts Casino Sweepstakes is it’s most interesting turn yet.

As Rand notes, “I certainly wouldn’t expect him to stay quiet.”


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