Casino Heretic

The Wall Street Journal
Published: June 24, 2002

Indian casinos are among the sweetest deals in American politics.  Casino interests throw millions of dollars at Democrats and Republicans alike, and in return they get monopoly rights to build tax-free gambling palaces.  Now comes a neophyte pol hoping to break up this black jack game.

His name is Jeff Benedict, a 36-year-old author staging a maverick run for the Democratic Party’s nomination inConnecticut’s Second Congressional District.  Home to both the billion-dollar Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos, the district can fairly be called the birthplace of today’s nationwide casino boom.  But Mr. Benedict is warning on the campaign trail thatConnecticutis becoming “Las Vegas East,” with everything that brings along with it.  If he succeeds, he might even start a much-needed public debate about the wisdom of state-promoted gambling.

Mr. Benedict’s quest began two years ago with the publication of “Without Reservation,” his book about the Mashantucket Pequot tribe’s creation of Foxwoods.  He created a state-wide stir by charging that the Pequots weren’t a legitimate tribe and that they gained federal recognition through political shenanigans.  The Pequots denounced the book as “pure ignorance.”  Mr. Benedict is now stumping to decertify the Pequots as an Indian tribe, which would subject Foxwoods to state taxes and regulation.

One of Mr. Benedict’s themes is reforming the federal process that grants Indian groups tribal status, and with it the right to build casinos.  In particular he wants to separate casino development rights from tribal recognition.  We’d add that reform of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Interior Department, which control recognition, is long overdue.  More than 200 Indian groups are now petitioning the BIA for tribal status, no fewer than 12 inConnecticutalone.  With a decision in four of these cases imminent, 23 municipal leaders wrote the Interior Department last month asking for a freeze.  Recognition, they wrote, will be “highly detrimental for our local governments and communities.” 

The BIA itself has become a mecca for political manipulation, or worse.  In May, the Interior Department fired the number two man at the BIA, Wayne Smith, after allegations of influence peddling among casino tribes surfaced in the media.  Mr. Smith says he was fired for protesting undue White House pressure in tribal recognition.  Earlier this year, an Interior Department report detailed egregious conduct by two Clinton-era BIA heads, Kevin Gover and Michael Anderson, in tribal recognition cases.  Both men have denied improper conduct.

Mr. Benedict remains a long shot, but his campaign has at least forced his opponents to confront the issue.  The incumbent, GOP Representative Rob Simmons, has noted that the casinos have created many jobs and contribute some $300 million to the state budget.  But he also now warns thatConnecticutis in danger of becoming a “casino state” and has called for reform of the BIA and more community influence over tribal recognition.

But to face Mr. Simmons, Mr. Benedict must first win among Democrats.  Mr. Benedict needs 15% of the delegates at the party’s July convention to force a primary against former state representative Joe Courtney, the choice of the Democratic establishment.  Mr. Courtney has bowed in Mr. Benedict’s direction on casinos, calling for reform of the BIA, but it’s clear he mostly favors the status quo.  He is clearly ahead, but in a sign of concern over the Benedict challenge, Democrats recently parachuted Senator Chris Dodd intoNorwichto help Mr. Courtney win the town’s convention votes.

This is a race worth watching.  ForWashingtonpols andK Streetlobbyists, Indian casinos are the geese that keep laying golden eggs.  Should Mr. Benedict win, or even come close, he’d send a wake-up call to the Beltway’s far too cozy pro-gambling consensus.

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