Betting the farm
on july 28, thousands of Middleborough voters assembled on a high school football field for town meeting, one of the purest exercises in grass-roots democracy. Carpenters and lawyers, farmers and small-business owners all mingled under the hot sun. The question of the day: Should Middleborough approve an agreement negotiated by selectmen with the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian tribe to bring a massive casino and resort to town? It would mean millions to the cash-strapped town budget, but plenty of new headaches for the rural community, too. Town meeting was a way to “let the people decide.” Yet for all the homage paid to this form of direct democracy, the issue had already been decided, in a practical sense, well before the moderator gaveled the meeting to order. Approval of the casino was a fait accompli, or at least close to it, as of April 27, the day a man nobody seemed to know walked into Town Hall and purchased a key parcel of land at a little-publicized town auction. The mystery man turned out to be an agent of the casino developers working with the Indian tribe. Once the Mashpee Wampanoag and their backers had control over the land they needed, they were sitting on pocket aces in a game of Texas Hold ’em.
After hours of sometimes rancorous debate on that late July afternoon, town meeting approved the casino deal by a wide margin. All eyes then turned toward Beacon Hill. Anticipation mounted for weeks as the state awaited Gov. Deval Patrick’s declaration of whether or not he would support casino gambling, an issue on which he had struck a Hamlet-like pose since taking office in January. On September 17, after weeks had turned to months, Patrick made official what many had come to guess, announcing his support for expanded legalized gambling in Massachusetts. Both tribal and non-tribal developers would be allowed to bid on commercial gambling licenses under the governor’s proposal, which called for three “destination resort” casinos in Massachusetts.
before leaving his post as town manager.
Photo courtesy of the Boston Globe.
Perhaps nowhere was the decision felt more viscerally than in Middleborough, which had seemed to be the front-runner to host the state’s first full-scale casino, one planned to be among the largest in the world. The governor’s decision suddenly meant the tribe and town would now face lots of competition. But it also meant the state’s leading political figure was now on the casino bandwagon, bringing Massachusetts one crucial step closer to rolling the dice on expanded gambling.
But there were other key factors at play. The town was a fiscal basket case, with scheduled expenditures far outstripping its revenue stream from property taxes and other sources. Middleborough had recently reached generous contract agreements with municipal unions, a move that was stoking the anger of citizens fed up with the fiscal management of the town. One group was organizing a recall drive against three of the town’s five selectmen. Against that bleak fiscal backdrop, the lure of a big payout to the town from a casino proved hard for local leaders to resist. In many respects, then, the Middleborough saga reads like a miniature version of the story unfolding at the state level, where talk of spending needs outpacing tax revenues has framed the casino debate. In Middleborough, critics say the lure of gambling money was so strong that town leaders effectively dealt the citizenry out on the question of whether to have a casino at all. As the governor’s plan is rolled out in the coming days, what happened when the free-spending of deep-pocketed casino moguls met a small town on the fiscal ropes may be a cautionary tale about the forces that could be unleashed statewide if Massachusetts opts to go “all in.”
GAINING A FOOTHOLD
I first visited Middleborough, a Plymouth County town of 22,000, in May, though I’ve been covering Indian casinos for the Boston Globe since 2000. As I made my rounds at Town Hall to begin reporting on the Mashpee Wampanoag proposal, everyone pointed me toward John Healey, then in his third decade as Middleborough town manager. “Jack,” people in Middleborough told me, kept the town going. Jack fixed the problems. Jack knew all.
But as 2007 began, Healey painted a dire picture of the state of affairs in Middleborough. Residents would have to pay higher property taxes or accept deep cuts in basic services. Police, firefighter, and teacher layoffs were certain. The town was on the ledge, ready to jump. As Healey told a regional section of the Boston Sunday Globe in January, “There are no more rabbits to pull out of the hat.”
But it turned out that Healey, who had announced plans in 2006 to retire in the summer of this year, did have one move left. Beginning in March, the veteran municipal manager meticulously and quietly laid the groundwork for a casino in his beloved town, though he hardly dared say the word in public. Lamenting the town’s fiscal crisis to a Brockton Enterprise reporter in June, he said, “The state is never going to bail us out. What are we going to do? It starts with a C.”
As the town meeting came closer, the attitude in town toward casinos became: “If you can’t beat them, join them.” Selectmen busily stoked the momentum by arguing that townspeople had better grab the millions now being dangled by developers—or else watch helplessly as the developers exploited the Wampanoag’s tribal status to build a casino without paying the town a dime. In the end, Healey openly campaigned for the deal, telling me in June that it was “a great deal, a huge deal.” It was the town rescued off the ledge.
Later, when reviewing the events leading to the town’s historic July 28 vote, I kept coming back to the April auction at which developers locked up the land needed for a casino. Healey had put it together at the same time he was meeting behind closed doors with the casino developers. Still, he repeatedly insisted to me he never gave them a heads-up on the auction. Further, he insisted he did not even realize the casino developers might be interested in the one large piece of town-owned property put up for auction in years. He said it was only after the auction had closed that he realized the winning bid had come from the casino development team.
When I asked about the auction, he told me, “There was nothing nefarious about it. It was an open, public auction.” The fact that the developers chose to come to Middleborough, Healey says, “was fortuitous.” But could anyone as savvy as Healey, after almost 35 years in the trenches of state and local government, arrange to sell a piece of property perfectly suited for a casino without realizing that a casino developer might actually want it?
THE CONNECTICUT GOLD RUSH
There was a kind of gold rush in New England during the late 1990s, unleashed by the spectacle of Connecticut’s two Indian-owned casinos positively choking on cash. But to break into the lucrative casino market, investors needed a tribe with government-conferred special status. So a large number of would-be tribes began arriving at the federal government’s doorstep brandishing newly drawn genealogies and demanding official recognition.
The Seminole Indian tribe of Florida pioneered high-stakes bingo in the 1970s, but it was the tiny Cabazon tribe of California who lent their name to a 1987 landmark court case. In Cabazon, the US Supreme Court considered for the first time the clash between the state interest in setting policy on gambling and the concept of Indian sovereignty.
The state of California argued that it had crafted gambling prohibitions to protect its citizens, and that its efforts would be rendered meaningless if people could gamble on reservations. The Reagan administration took a different position. It favored the cultivation of gambling enterprises to provide at least modest support to tribes in barren prairies or deserts. The court ultimately ruled that California could not interfere with the tribal nation. To the Reagan administration, it was a satisfying win for market-based approaches to solving social problems. To tribes, the decision was much more. It validated the idea of sovereignty.
Congress responded to Cabazon by quickly stitching together a confounding set of compromises. Most importantly, it carved out a role for the states—an insult, really, to sovereignty, but the price tribes would have to pay to avoid Congress enacting a complete prohibition on tribal gambling.
The legislation authorized tribes to operate on their lands any type of gambling legal in that state. But in states where gambling was prohibited, a state could not simply ignore the tribes. The law required those state governments to search for a compromise that would allow tribes to operate gambling ventures. The goal of the mandatory negotiations was what Congress called a “compact,” a set of conditions agreeable to the state under which a tribe could go into the gambling business. In practice, it usually meant the tribe paying the state a share of its gambling profits in exchange for the state’s go-ahead. (Congress did not spell out, however, what would happen if negotiations broke down because the state rejected every offer the tribe made.)
Massachusetts currently allows bingo, greyhound and horse racing, lotteries, and table games such as blackjack and roulette during charity fund-raising events, typically called “Las Vegas nights.” That means federally recognized tribes in the Bay State have the absolute right to operate those kinds of gambling enterprises on their reservations. But to step up to lucrative slot machines, tribes in Massachusetts would need either a compact with the state or the kind of expansion of legalized gambling that Patrick is now proposing.
Middleborough leaders “did not deal squarely”
with their own constituents.
Photo by Michael Manning.
During the late ’80s, few anticipated even the slightest ripple from Indian gambling in staid old New England. But even before the Cabazon decision, a tiny tribe was experimenting with bingo in the swampy woods of southeastern Connecticut. The Mashantucket Pequot comprised no more than 40 people, led by Richard “Skip” Hayward—a restless pipe-fitter of, at most, one-sixteenth Indian blood, according to Revenge of the Pequot, a 2001 book by Washington author Kim Isaac Eisler. Hayward parlayed that precious Pequot blood into a little enterprise he dubbed Foxwoods. From the start, its bingo operation boasted handsome cash flows, but it would never truly be a casino without slot machines. So Hayward moved his chess pieces carefully. The federal courts sided with him when he argued that the state’s approval of occasional “Las Vegas night” charity events gave the tribe the right to operate blackjack, roulette, and other games. Haywood next invoked the state’s legal obligation to negotiate with him over a compact to cover slots. Lowell Weicker, the governor of Connecticut in the early 1990s, who had blustered that there would never be slots in his state, blinked. If he could no longer hold off slots, Weicker reasoned, he had better get the state something in return. Hayward offered a minimum of $100 million a year or 25 percent of gross slot revenues to the state, whatever was greater. Weicker jumped at it. Fifteen years later, Foxwoods cuts the state in for about $220 million a year.
Foxwoods opened in 1992 and has never closed its doors since. Nor has it ever stopped expanding. More than $3 billion in construction investment has poured into the tiny town of Ledyard. Now one of the largest casinos in the world, Foxwoods includes 8,700 slot machines, 425 table games, a booming hotel, restaurants, stores, a convention center, and golf courses, and it employs over 13,000 people. It is a $1.5 billion-a-year business. Not bad for an itinerant pipe-fitter.
The Pequot inspired a lot of imitators, but most of their dreams unraveled trying to prove themselves tribes in Washington. For example, the Nipmuc Indian tribe won preliminary recognition from the federal government on the last day of the Clinton administration. The tribe had picked out a huge tract of land in Sturbridge off Interstate 84 in central Massachusetts for a casino. But “tribehood” was fleeting; upon a second reading of the tribe’s history and genealogies, the Bush administration ruled in 2000 that this was no tribe at all.
The Mohegan Indian tribe of Uncasville, Conn., had better results. Their quest for recognition had begun long before casinos became an irresistible incentive. But by 1994, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs made recognition official, Mohegan leaders were in the thrall of Sol Kerzner and his partners, notably local hotelier Len Wolman.
Kerzner had spent a lifetime in the casino business. He made his gambling bones—and a fortune—in his native South Africa in the 1970s developing the Sun City casino. Casinos were banned in South Africa at the time, but not in the black “homelands” carved out under the system of racial apartheid. Kerzner struck a deal to operate in Bophuthatswana, one such homeland located only a two-hour drive from Johannesburg. Whites flocked there, but Sun City was widely condemned because it operated under the apartheid government. Kerzner was later accused of bribing the government of another homeland, Transkei, and he abruptly left the country. In 1976, New Jersey gambling regulators concluded that Kerzner had paid a bribe of $900,000 in Transkei in 1986 (he has denied these charges) but decided it was an “aberration” and that enough time had elapsed to grant him a license for a casino in Atlantic City—which failed miserably. His partnership with Wolman and the Connecticut tribe, in contrast, has succeeded brilliantly from the moment the doors of Mohegan Sun opened in 1996. Today, Kerzner’s growing casino empire includes the popular Atlantis resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, and extends to Dubai, Mexico, Maldives and Mauritius. Could Massachusetts be next?
In 2001, I discovered by reviewing financial records that Kerzner and his partners had made deals with the Mohegan that would pay them about $1 billion for helping to build the tribe’s casino. Congress had tried to be vigilant in making sure tribes, not investors, received the benefits of tribal casinos, but it was hard to police lopsided business deals between willing parties.
the Sun City casino in South Africa.
Photo by AP.
Before the casino opened, the Mohegan had little cash and no business experience. Kerzner and Wolman stepped in to fund at least $9 million in tribal expenses, including salaries for Chief Ralph Sturges and other leaders. They renovated the chief’s house and gave his son a job. And Sturges signed several agreements giving Kerzner and Wolman a vast array of financial interests in the yet-to-be built casino.
Kerzner and Wolman shrewdly tapped the New York bond market for hundreds of millions to build the Sun. They correctly decided to go high end, sparing no expense for indoor waterfalls and unrelenting elegance. They even arranged to have a direct ramp to the casino built off busy Interstate 395. Most importantly, they put people in the casino seats, most of them busily pulling slot machine levers.
most prominent partners in New England.
Photo by the Boston Globe.
In the process they made billions for the tribe. And they did not stint on themselves. At a 2001 hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in Washington, a perturbed Sen. John McCain recounted the huge Kerzner-Wolman payout and grilled the head of a federal agency charged with policing such deals. “Do you find that disturbing? Outrageous, even?” he asked angrily of the deal. Monte Deer, the head of the agency, acknowledged that loopholes had been exploited by “innovative” lawyers. It was all perfectly legal, just not what had been intended by Congress.
THE MIDDLEBOROUGH CRUNCH
Kerzner and Wolman waited a long time to ride into Massachusetts. Not that they weren’t paying attention. In an interview with the Providence Journal earlier this year, Wolman described their business philosophy this way: “We’re opportunists. We are always looking.” What they needed was a tribe. And as federal recognition of the Mashpee Wampanoag appeared ever more certain late last year, Kerzner and Wolman made their move, finally sealing a development agreement with the tribe on December 1.
On February 15, when recognition became official, Gov. Patrick telephoned his congratulations. “This recognition is long overdue,” he told tribal chairman Glenn Marshall in what was the first call the Wampanoag received from a politician after receiving word from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “I look forward to working with the tribe to move Massachusetts forward,” Patrick said, according to a statement released by the governor’s office.
Marshall was already a familiar figure from his politicking on Beacon Hill. In the days ahead he arranged an April 6 meeting in Boston with Daniel O’Connell, the governor’s secretary of economic affairs and point man on the gambling issue. Meanwhile, in Middleborough, word got out that the tribe might be enticed into town. In March, Jack Healey wrote a three-paragraph memo to the board of selectmen and titled it “Casino anyone?”
Since last winter, Marshall and his representatives had been scouring southeastern Massachusetts for a large parcel of land close to a major highway to serve as their reservation, on the theory that getting the town to back a casino would go a lot more smoothly if the tribe already had the land in its possession. The US Department of Interior must ultimately approve the reservation site, as the department would hold the title to the land “in trust” for the tribe. (This requirement is a holdover from when the federal government considered Indian tribes ill-suited to own and manage land themselves.) Getting land into trust can be an excruciatingly long bureaucratic process—after all, federal recognition of the Mashpee Wampanoag had taken more than 30 years—and approval is not automatic. But getting land into trust is the key to unlocking the vault. With it comes the federally guaranteed right to operate a casino without striking any revenue-sharing deal with the town.
The Mashpee tribe has already gone further than the Aquinnah Wampanoag, which came knocking in Middleborough in 2003. The reaction in the town then was unambiguous.
“I won’t support a casino. There is no way, shape, or form,” Selectman Wayne Perkins, now an ardent casino supporter, told the Brockton Enterprise in March 2003.
What changed between then and summer 2007? First, the town had been rescued time and again by depleting cash reserves and by selling off assets such as the town landfill. When the real estate market was hot, Middleborough lived off the surge in building permits fees. But those days were over. Healey, Perkins and other town officials felt they were running out of options for filling the gap between Middleborough’s revenues and anticipated expenditures.
Scores of towns were similarly suffering, but Middleborough’s problems were exacerbated by generous municipal union contracts. While public-sector unions have long held considerable sway in Massachusetts, that was even more true in Middleborough, which has an especially large municipal workforce because the town operates its own electric, gas, and water utilities. In 2005, Healey and the selectmen negotiated contracts giving some workers as much as a 30 percent raise over three years. The town also paid 90 percent of health care insurance for its employees, along with pensions of up to 80 percent of a worker’s salary at retirement and the buy-back of unused sick days. Stephen Studley, a member of the town finance committee, channeled a growing sentiment in Middleborough. “We know we don’t have the money for these ridiculous contracts the selectmen negotiated,” he said at a committee meeting in March 2005, according to a report in the Brockton Enterprise.
Healey’s own annual pay rate jumped from $116,000 in 2004 to $142,500 this year. The selectmen even gave him a raise effective July 1, knowing that his last day on the job was June 22; the higher pay kicked in while Healey was enjoying his last 10 weeks on the payroll soaking up unused vacation time. This farewell bump in Healey’s salary meant an extra $3,000 for his unused sick time, giving him a total of $41,100 for 75 unused sick days, and a higher lifetime pension of $102,700 a year. On top of all that, the town pays almost $15,000 a year for Healey’s retirement health insurance.
Others in Town Hall were set for sizeable raises this year, too. The budget called for a 19 percent pay raise in Treasurer Judy MacDonald’s salary, to $99,770, and a 32 percent pay raise for the selectmen’s executive secretary, to $66,000. But residents voted down those proposed raises at the annual town meeting.
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK
The Mashpee Wampanoag and their partners concentrated their search for a reservation in southeastern Massachusetts because the tribe’s ancestral homelands were there and the Interior Department would insist on such a historical connection. But the casino business partners also continued highly visible negotiations with the city of New Bedford to build on the waterfront there, even though that site was simply not in keeping with the Mohegan Sun-styled casino playbook. High density and high crime brought complications, and the first choice remained a bucolic setting where a casino could be self-contained—more an exit ramp off the highway than part of an established urban environment. Still, New Bedford made for a useful foil to keep Middleborough’s attention.
Scott Ferson, a seasoned Democratic operative and public relations specialist who once worked for US Sen. Edward Kennedy, had been hired to keep the development team purring, along with the politically connected law firm Quinn & Morris, headed by the former House speaker and attorney general Robert Quinn. They packaged the casino in Middleborough as fulfilling the aspirations of a hard-working native people long overdue for a break, a people as “Massachusetts” as the bean and the cod.
Middleborough town records show that town manager Healey contemplated an auction of town land in October 2006. In a memo to selectmen at that time, he said the town might raise $400,000 selling various parcels. Although the parcels weren’t listed in the memo, it is unlikely that Healey had in mind the piece of land that eventually wound up in the hands of the casino developers, since it would later be valued by Healey at a minimum of $1.5 million, the records show.
Only after Healey wrote his “Casino anyone?” memo in March, and discussed it with selectmen, were steps taken to auction off one of the town’s largest pieces of land. (The subject of a casino was not raised again at selectmen’s meetings until May, after the auction.) On April 9, Healey came to the board of selectmen’s meeting with a list of 31 properties he recommended for auction. Selectmen briefly discussed the proposed auction before voting to authorize it, without paying any particular attention to the 120-acre property that made the others look the size of postage stamps. That large property was taken by the town from the late Daniel Striar for failure to pay taxes in 1997. It was surrounded by 200 more acres still owned by the Striar family, which fronted on busy Route 44. Before the auction, the casino developers had already privately negotiated an option with the Striar family to buy this larger property, according to documents filed in the county registry of deeds. This optioned parcel, combined with formerly Striar-owned land now going to auction, would provide an ideal site for a casino.
During the April meeting, Healey downplayed the significance of the planned auction, according to a videotape of the meeting. It would raise cash for the town, he cautioned, but it would still not prevent “dramatic cuts in budgets.” The auction was mostly intended for existing property owners to acquire slivers of land, he told selectmen, never mentioning the possibility of a casino. “We’re hoping abutters pick up some of the properties,” he said.
The auction was approved for April 27, less than three weeks away. The town ran plain vanilla legal notices in the back pages of the weekly Middleborough Gazette on April 12 and April 19.
At about two in the afternoon on April 27, Healey opened bidding on the 120-acre property once owned by Daniel Striar. A couple of dozen folks had gathered in the domed Middleborough Town Hall. When a man in a neat leather jacket offered the minimum bid of $1.5 million, heads turned. He was unfamiliar to people in the room. His name was Jason Wilson, general counsel of Strather & Associates of Detroit. Herb Strather, a Detroit-born businessman who had built a fortune investing in real estate and casinos, had funded the Mashpee Wampanoag with millions of dollars during its drive for recognition, and then gone into partnership with Kerzner and Wolman to back the effort to open a casino.
By law, abutters had to be individually notified of the auction by mail. One abutter, Richard Beal, happened to be in the real estate business. Beal stepped up with a bid $5,000 over Wilson’s. But Wilson had been instructed not to come home without the 120-acre parcel, a representative of the casino developers told me. “We needed to control that parcel for our plan to work,” the representative said. “We couldn’t afford to have another player involved.”
The competition wore on, with 31 bids in all.
“One million, seven hundred and sixty-five thousand,” Wilson finally said.
“Sold,” declared Healey.
It was only after the auction, Healey told me, that he realized that it was a representative of the casino developers who had successfully bid on the property.
I called Marshall, the tribal chairman, on his cell phone a few hours after the auction. He said the casino developers were already in discussions with Healey and other town officials, and that the talks had predated the auction. “We’ve had a couple of good meetings,” he told me. “We’re still negotiating.”
Healey was only eight weeks from hanging a “gone fishing” sign on his career and retiring. But what a whirlwind eight weeks it would be.
INROADS ON BEACON HILL
Federal recognition of the Mashpee Wampanoag in February prompted legislative gambling opponents, such as state Rep. Dan Bosley and state Sen. Sue Tucker, to insist on a meeting with Patrick. They made their case against gambling, but the governor remained noncommittal. When the story broke that casino developers had purchased a large tract of land in Middleborough, the lid blew off the State House. Anyone who had ever dreamed of breaking into the gambling market sensed it was time to pounce. Racetrack owners argued that their businesses could survive only by adding slot machines. Boston Mayor Tom Menino suggested a casino at Suffolk Downs in East Boston. Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelman, a Mattapan native, met with Dan O’Connell, the governor’s secretary of economic affairs, to sketch his ideas for a mega-casino somewhere near Interstate 495. Further west, the Mohegan tribe dusted off a plan to open a casino in Palmer, just off the Massachusetts Turnpike.
Beacon Hill seemed to be tilting in favor of expanded gambling. The state Senate had passed a bill to allow slot machines at racetracks just last year—only to have it stymied by House Speaker Sal DiMasi, considered by many to be the most potent political figure opposing gambling. Newly elected Lt. Gov. Tim Murray had led a coalition of municipal officials in favor of casinos when he was mayor of Worcester. The new Senate president, Therese Murray, was on board, and Attorney General Martha Coakley was voicing no opposition.
Then state Treasurer Tim Cahill took everyone by surprise. The treasurer oversees the lucrative state lottery, which returns more than $900 million a year in local aid payments to cities and towns. Ever since the lottery was created in the 1970s, treasurers had guarded it jealously, opposing any proposals for casinos, which they feared could eat into lottery sales. On May 24, with the Mashpee Wampanoag’s proposal in Middleborough gaining steam, Cahill broke rank. Hoping for an end run around the Wampanoag, he said the time had come for state-licensed, commercial casinos. Cahill argued that the Commonwealth could raise more money by selling licenses and collecting taxes at commercial casinos than it could by negotiating a Foxwoods-like agreement for sharing revenues from tribal-owned casinos. It was essentially the same proposal that Patrick would make four months later.
After the April land auction, Healey and the town’s board of selectmen, meeting in secret, got down to negotiating an agreement with the Mashpee Wampanoag and their backers. Middleborough, meanwhile, divided into pro- and anti-casino sides for what would be an emotional debate. Those in favor emphasized the new construction and casino jobs and the millions of dollars in new revenue in store for the beleaguered town. Those against decried the wholesale transformation of the quiet, rural community that a casino would bring, raising concerns about everything from heavy traffic to a possible increase in drunk driving.
When opponents asked that the casino question be put to a referendum vote, selectmen at first voted no. Even a suggestion that selectmen conduct an informational hearing about the casino failed. Under intense pressure from opponents, the selectmen finally agreed to an informational meeting, but a referendum was determined to be legally impermissible until the annual election next April, and the casino developers were not willing to wait that long.
Patience with the selectmen seemed to be running thin. Even before the casino issue broke, selectmen could hardly claim a broad mandate, given the lackluster voter turnout at the most recent town election. In April, Adam Bond had been re-elected to his selectman’s seat with just 901 votes—the most of any candidate but only about 6 percent of the 14,200 registered voters in Middleborough. Townspeople then began a drive to recall three of the selectmen (Bond was not among them). The recall effort charged the officials with financial mismanagement, citing, among other things, the generous union contracts the selectmen had approved. Town residents easily collected the 800 signatures needed for the recall election, the first in 15 years, scheduled for September 29.
While all this was going on, Healey and the selectmen were turned back in their efforts to generate an additional $2.5 million per year for town government through a Proposition 21/2 override. On June 2, residents voted the proposal down by a 2-1 margin. (Scheduling difficulties prevented the casino vote from being taken at the June 2 meeting.)
Over the summer, casino proponents gained strength in the municipal, building trades, and hotel workers’ unions. Healey publicly predicted that 2,000 union construction jobs would be created by the casino, plus 5,000 permanent jobs. The pro-casino forces mobilized sign waving at a heavily traveled rotary on Route 44. Public meetings became crowded with supporters. At one, the president of the police union publicly delivered a letter of unanimous support to Glenn Marshall. The president of the firefighters’ union publicly endorsed the casino, as did the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Proponents even distributed feathers to those attending meetings, a reminder of the American Indian heritage they would supposedly be honoring by backing the tribe’s plan.
Marshall, in casual dress and sporting his trademark silver ponytail, put his personal credibility on the line again and again, telling small-business owners that if they suffered economically due to a casino, they should personally come to him for redress. Larry Deitch, a lawyer for the developers, heaped unqualified praise on Marshall and the others leading the casino effort. “This is a focused group of leadership, integrity, and honesty,” Deitch said in a Brockton Enterprise story in June. Two months later, Marshall would resign as tribal chairman after admitting to a 1981 rape conviction and to repeatedly lying about the extent of his military experience as a Marine in Vietnam. The Internal Revenue Service recently began reviewing records subpoenaed from tribal headquarters.
Proponents also had the professional assistance of PR guru Ferson and others. They were far better financed and better organized than opponents, who later said they were able to raise less than $8,000 for the campaign to try to block the casino. Leaders of the anti-casino effort challenged proponents to disclose their spending, but casino advocates declined. There is no legal obligation to report on spending on such town meeting matters, as there is under state law for spending in other campaigns. One development representative nevertheless told me that proponents spent close to $100,000 on the pro-casino campaign.
The agreement that emerged from the negotiations among Healey, selectmen, and the developers called for the tribe and its partners to pay for massive infrastructure improvements in the vicinity of the casino, plus $7 million a year to the town in lieu of property taxes. A revised agreement six weeks later sweetened the deal by promising the town a 4 percent room tax on the casino’s planned hotel. When the selectmen met on June 25 to discuss the negotiated but as yet unsigned contract, a cadre of casino supporters showed up in force, chanting, “Sign the contract, sign the contract.”
But the town lawyer ruled that the contract had to be approved by voters at town meeting to have legal effect. Town officials quickly scheduled a town meeting for the earliest possible date, which was July 28. By then, however, opinions on the casino had hardened. Many in Middleborough were already being conditioned by selectmen to think of the town as helpless to stop the casino. “The tribe owns the land, and if they go to the state without an agreement [with the town], the town will lose a lot,” Marsha Brunelle, chairman of the board of selectmen, said at a June 5 meeting, according to minutes of the session.
At the same meeting, Perkins, the selectman who four years earlier was adamant in opposing a casino, said the matter was out of his hands. This was one of the few situations where “we don’t get to make the decision,” he said, according to the minutes of the meeting. “If we don’t get on the page, we will get zero.”
ODDS AND ENDS
Organizers of the July 28 town meeting tried to liven it up with baby boomer-era rock music blasted from loudspeakers on the football field. They called the event Votestock, a play on the iconic 1969 concert in upstate New York. Many of the thousands who braved the hot, humid weather dragged lawn chairs as if en route to the Esplanade for the Boston Pops’ annual Fourth of July concert. But not all was fun and games. Nor, say casino opponents, were those pushing for the deal leaving much to chance.
The electrical union had begun distributing bright orange pro-casino T-shirts the day before, and hundreds came wearing them in support of the casino. The town’s police chief Gary Russell, addressed the crowd in uniform, one of five speakers selected by proponents to urge a “yes” vote for the casino deal. Russell said he expected no significant increase in crime due to a casino. Meanwhile, police lieutenant Bruce Gates oversaw security at the town meeting. His family owned 200 acres of land next to the planned casino site, land for which the Gates family would sell an option to the casino developers two weeks after the town meeting.
Moderator James Thomas kept the meeting under a tight rein. When the votes were counted, he announced that the casino agreement had passed, 2,387 to 1,335. A cheer went up. But there was a second item on the agenda, a nonbinding question to town residents. It asked a more basic question: Do you want a casino in Middleborough?
Thomas asked for a show of hands. Remarkably, the vote was overwhelming against a casino. Some chalked it up to proponents having left the football field after the binding vote on the selectmen’s casino deal was taken. What did they care once that deal had been validated? But others saw it as evidence that Middleborough residents really didn’t want a casino at all, but voted for the selectmen’s deal because, once the tribe and its bigfoot partners had scooped up the land, they felt painted into a corner.
Whether a casino will actually open in Middleborough is far from clear. If the Legislature goes along with the Patrick/ Cahill casino plan, the Mashpee Wampanoag, backed by Kerzner and Wolman, could bid for a license like anyone else. Or they could press ahead with their already filed land-into-trust application, knowing that the moment Middleborough is declared a reservation, they have the right to operate a casino with any form of gambling allowed in the state, but without having to buy a $200 million to $300 million license and without sharing 27 percent of its revenues with the Commonwealth, as Patrick was proposing for commercial operations.
What does seem certain, however, is that the rush to lock up land in Middleborough and the moves by big money casino interests to exploit openings they saw in the financially wobbly town will play out in a lot more places if the state opens the door to casinos. Whether all the promised economic benefits of casinos are real, whether it’s the right way to raise revenue—and whether it’s worth the toll on compulsive gamblers and those hurt in their wake—are questions for those communities and the state as a whole to decide.
More losing than winning is, of course, the one sure thing about gambling at casinos. What Middleborough casino opponents say they didn’t realize until it was too late was how much the odds were stacked against them from the start in the debate over whether to have a casino at all.Ted Eayrs, a lifelong resident and past selectman, recently told me he voted for the agreement because he was afraid the town might get stuck with a casino without the cash payments. But he voted against the casino in the second, nonbinding vote. “A casino was thrust in the laps of the public without any input from the public because of that auction,” he said, fingering the April land sale as the point of no return. “I thought we needed the agreement as protection, but that didn’t mean I wanted a casino.”
Sean P. Murphy is a reporter for The Boston Globe.