Narragansett casino defeated in referendum

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Voters said no to a referendum question on the Nov. 7 ballot that would have allowed the Narragansett Indian Tribe to open a casino with its partner, Harrah’s Entertainment.

The referendum question – “Can the Narragansett Indian Tribe and its chosen partner operate a casino in Rhode Island?” – went down by about 63 percent of the vote.

Tribal Councilman John Brown said the tribe was weighing its options regarding the next steps it would take.

Although Harrah’s spent around $12 million in its campaign for the casino proposal, it could not overcome the opposition from anti-casino groups and the state government, which operates the state’s two casinos.

“It’s a tragedy,” tribal attorney Douglas Luckerman said about the casino defeat and a Nov. 27 U.S. Supreme Court rejection of the tribe’s appeal of a lower court ruling that the state has jurisdiction on the reservation.

“What has been lost through all these arguments and years of litigation is that the Narragansetts are a people. They have a government that cares about their people. They try to do what they have to protect their people. What did the state win, apart from bragging rights?” Luckerman said.

The opposition has not resulted in benefits, Luckerman said.

“Did they create new jobs? Did they provide additional services? Did they educate anybody, build new schools or health clinics? What tangible benefit is there except for making sure the state gets more money than the tribe? What does the state get out of this? They get rid of the competition,” Luckerman said.

In theory, the casino deal is dead for now, unless Congress agrees to a request from the tribe to remove a rider that bars the tribe from opening a casino under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

Claire Richards, special counsel to Gov. Donald Carcieri, said there were a variety of reasons why voters rejected the casino proposal, but opposition to the Narragansetts was not one of them.

“There’s a proportion of voters who voted no because they oppose gaming. There’s a proportion that did not like the tribe’s chosen partner. There’s a proportion that voted no because they want a casino in their town [rather than in the proposed town of West Warwick]. You don’t always know why people vote no. But I think, basically, people were favorably disposed to a Narragansett casino. Without the Narragansetts, the casino would have gone down in a much greater defeat,” Richards said.

Although another referendum cannot occur during this election cycle, the door is not locked against a future vote, Richards said.

“It’s not the case that this can never come back,” Richards said.