New Chief on the Vineyard

While you were busy watching football yesterday, 147 Aquinnah Wampanoag Indians cast ballots in their annual tribal elections. And there’s a chance their votes could cost Massachusetts hundreds of millions of dollars in casino revenue.

Tribe members ousted sitting chairman Donald Widdiss—who by forging a partnership with the gaming-savvy Seneca Nation of New York has led the tribe’s charge toward a casino—and replaced him with Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, who currently serves as the tribe’s historic preservation officer.

Andrews-Maltais told us that she prevailed by a count of 99 votes to 48 (the tribe has so far only confirmed the result, not the tally) and that she’s due to take office for her three-year term in January. That’s about the same time that the casino debate is expected to pick up in the State House back here on the mainland.

Ironically, casinos were not a particularly overriding issue in the run up to the election. Widdiss and Andrews-Maltais are both longtime gaming supporters, and Andrews-Maltais figured the hyper-local vote hinged more on issues of community involvement. However, our conversation with Andrew-Maltais revealed at least one important difference between her and Widdiss.

While Widdiss was inclined to wait on Gov. Deval Patrick‘s casino legislation before pursuing a casino on federally granted Indian land, Andrews-Maltais says her preference is to pursue both tracks concurrently.

“The preference is, once the state makes up its mind, then we have look at what the best business potential is for us,” Widdiss told us last week.

On the other hand, Andrews-Maltais told Boston Daily this morning, “I think it’s wise to pursue both venues…To wait for one after the other doesn’t really seem like it’s the wisest course.”

It’s a rare two-fer, that could potentially deal a big blow to both the pro-casino Patrick and the anti-casino forces, led by Speaker of the House, Sal DiMasi.

If the Aquinnah—and Mashpee Wampanoag, for that matter— end up with casinos on federal land, they would have no obligation to the commonwealth, thus ripping the guts out of Patrick’s plan to generate billions of dollars worth of revenue by licensing and taxing casino gaming.

On the flip side, to DiMasi’s potential chagrin, if legislators view Indian casinos in Massachusetts as inevitable, then they could be more inclined to hasten the passing of Patrick’s casino bill.

Now, before we get too ahead of ourselves, the issue of whether the Aquinnah could actually pursue a casino on federally granted Indian land is exceptionally dicey. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 2004 that the tribe waived its right to sovereign immunity when they signed the 1987 agreement that led to federal tribal recognition. That ruling means that the tribe is currently forced to obey state and local zoning laws. Distilled, that means that as far as the state is concerned, the Aquinnah traded in their casino chip to be a tribe.

Both Widdiss and Andrews-Maltais contend that the ruling could be overturned, but by saying that he’d rather wait to see how the state process plays out, Widdiss essentially indicated that he would avoid the legal battle. Andrews-Maltais sounds much more open to a fight.

“To apply Massachusetts general law to Indian law is applying apples to oranges,” she said in reference to the SJC’s 2004 decision. “And they don’t have a lot of expertise because we were the only recognized tribe in the state. It should have been in federal court and it should have remained in federal court. It’s a trust issue.”

The Mashpee branch of the Wampanoag have also said that they will concurrently pursue a casino through both the state and federal process, indicating that they would ultimately opt with whichever route allowed them to open a casino soonest. For both tribes, then, it looks like the race is on.