Perhaps a Yankee Swap is in Order

See if you can follow this: Gov. Deval Patrick, who supports gambling, endorsed Barack Obama, who views it suspiciously. Speaker of the House Sal DiMasi, the state’s number one adversary of gaming is behind Hillary Clinton, who happens to think that casinos aren’t such bad thing.

So, if Patrick gets what he wants and Obama is elected, he may not get what he wants with casinos. If DiMasi has his way and Clinton prevails, then that could also end up working to the Speaker’s disadvantage.

To further confuse things, Obama is reportedly an avid poker player.

Obviously, gaming is just one small issue among many much more important ones (war, healthcare, economy anyone?), but whoever becomes the next president could have a direct impact on the future of casinos here in the Bay State. That’s because the fate of the Mashpee Wampanoag’s efforts to build a casino on sovereign Indian land rests squarely in the hands of the next Secretary of the Interior.

In order to open a casino on tribal land, the Mashpee need the Bureau of Indian Affairs, within the Department of the Interior, to approve its application to put their Middleborough site into federal trust, effectively turning it into a reservation.

The application process is long and arduous, but it basically comes down to a gut call by the Interior Secretary. Under George W. Bush, Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has consistently blocked tribes’ efforts to open casinos. But by the time the Mashpee application comes due for a decision, Kempthorne and Bush will be long gone.

Steven Light, an Indian gaming expert at the University of North Dakota school of law, says that it’s a long-shot that any of the candidates would appoint a Secretary itching to mark off land for casinos. But, of all the candidates, Clinton would be most likely to appoint one favorable to the Mashpee. Obama would come in second, he said, with John McCain a distant third.

Light explained that although all three candidates have records of being highly sympathetic to the sovereign rights of Indian tribes, only McCain has been on the record vis-a-vis tribal casinos (he’s against new ones on freshly acquired land). Clinton and Obama have been relatively mum on tribal gaming, but they’ve said plenty about gambling in general—so much that Clinton used it as a campaign point in the run-up to the Nevada caucus. These are the first two paragraphs of a story the L.A. Times ran on January 18:

Barack Obama has warned about the dangers of gambling—that it carries a “moral and social cost” that could “devastate” poor communities. As a state senator in Illinois, he at times opposed plans to expand gambling, worrying that it could be especially harmful to low-income people.

Today, those views are posing a problem for Obama in the gambling mecca of Nevada, which holds its presidential nominating caucuses Saturday. While his top rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, also talks often about aiding low-income Americans, she has embraced the gambling industry and its executives, and her campaign has used Obama’s past statements in an effort to turn casino workers and other Nevada voters against him.

Based on that story, it seems pretty clear which of the two candidates would be more likely to install an Interior Secretary willing to allow the Mashpee their casino.

Granted, Patrick himself has opposed the Mashpee land application since it would undercut his plan to open a trio of Massachusetts casinos on the state’s terms. But I have a hunch he wouldn’t mind the threat of a Secretary predisposed to expanded Indian gaming. The looming danger of the Mashpee opening a tax exempt casino on sovereign land would probably spur the state’s foot-dragging legislature to act on his proposal.

If Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, that threat could be real. Somehow, though, I think that’s a risk DiMasi would be willing to hazard.