Gambling with Andrew Cuomo

Few New Yorkers will shed tears for our indigenous brethren who will once again find themselves on the losing end of a political battle. After all, breaking treaties with Indians is a time-honored tradition in the United States. We’re awesome at that.

New York State Gov. Cuomo of the Andrew persuasion continues to ride high in the opinion polls, and for good reason. His approach thus far has been pitch perfect, even tackling controversial issues such as gay marriage with remarkable finesse. Cautiously and quietly the governor has moved a fairly progressive agenda forward in the first year of his administration. Now, on the eve of his sophomore year in office, he is martialing his political capital to begin making fiscal moves that will test his popularity and his political resolve.

Cuomo has targeted two key areas that should sustain his reputation as a strong fiscal manager and reform-minded executive: his regional economic development initiatives and his income tax modifications to provide a marginal break for the middle class while imposing a slight increase to the state’s highest earners. How he proceeds on the issue of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) upstate in the Marcellus Shale region could have a lasting effect on his record.
If fracking is allowed to proceed in the state, Cuomo risks alienating liberal democrats and environmentalists but the money generated from drilling operations may prove too tempting for the new governor to pass up. But as dicey as this issue is for Cuomo, there is another revenue-generating idea on his agenda with potential negative consequences upstate that will barely impact his approval ratings.

Up for consideration in his plan is the creation of private Class III gaming facilities throughout the state. Establishing more full-fledged casinos in New York may invite criticism from New Jersey and Connecticut as well as anti-gambling advocates, but it will undoubtedly pass the legislature’s scrutiny within the 2013 time frame delineated by the Cuomo administration. It entails passing muster in two consecutive sessions followed by a public referendum; but once approved, the state would then be allowed to issue licenses to private operators. In a statement Cuomo said, “Through this plan, we can promote job creation and recapture revenue that is currently being lost to other states.”
Fair enough, but why so many hurdles just to allow private casinos? We already have Off Track Betting, the lottery and Indian casin…. Ooooohhhh! Right. Those pesky agreements with the Indian tribes. The reason this move requires so many political machinations is that Class III gaming licenses were intended to be in the exclusive purview of recognized Indian tribes in the state. Contracts, by the way, which have been extremely lucrative for the state as well. The constitutional amendment and subsequent referendum are political-speak for “how government breaks treaties with Indians.”

The reason New York tribes have enjoyed any success in the gaming industry is because they have possessed the ability to construct and operate casinos on reservation territories without competition from private, off-reservation interests. It’s this exclusivity that has enabled tribes to succeed in spite of their remote locales. Introducing casinos into more urban areas will be a boon for the state and a disaster for the tribes. Ironically, this decision could also have the unintended consequence of further decimating employment in isolated upstate regions, many of which rely on direct and ancillary income and jobs created as a result of tribal gaming facilities.

Nevertheless, few New Yorkers will shed tears for our indigenous brethren who will once again find themselves on the losing end of a political battle. After all, breaking treaties with Indians is a time-honored tradition in the United States. We’re awesome at that. This latest move will have come as no surprise to tribal leaders who no doubt anticipated the inevitable demise of their rights before the ink was dry on the agreements. What I find so poignant about this turn of events is the timing and the characters involved as the target date of 2013 will be exactly 20 years after Andrew’s father, then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, granted New York’s tribes the sole authority to operate Class III facilities.

This multi-generational twist–the old “the father giveth and the son taketh away”–is a great angle but not without precedent. In fact, our most recent national holiday provides the perfect historical illustration of intergenerational power struggles.

The pilgrims in Plymouth who survived the harsh winters of the early 1600s in their new home did so through the kindness and assistance of the Wampanoag tribe headed by the great sachem Massasoit. The friendship that blossomed between Massasoit and one of the original settlers, Edward Winslow, endured for the remainder of both men’s lives and is the stuff of legend. In fact, it’s through Winslow’s journal that we have one of only two accounts of what would come to be known as Thanksgiving. In his entry he states: “Amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted.”

Fifty years later, both Winslow and Massasoit were gone. The great Sachem’s son, Metacom–also referred to as King Philip by the settlers–was threatened and cajoled by the increasingly hostile colonists. In 1675 war broke out between the Wampanoag, led by Philip, and the settlers. A year later the colonists feasted and celebrated once again, this time by toasting their victory over the Indians in what is now known as King Philip’s War.
According to historian Jill Lepore, “the final day of Thanksgiving, of the war, is the day Philip’s head is marched into Plymouth. This decapitated head on a pole in the center of town is cause for a great celebration.” Philip’s severed head remained atop a stake outside of Plymouth colony for 20 years while his 9-year-old son was imprisoned and then sold into slavery. The governor of Plymouth, who is widely credited as having killed Philip’s brother and drawing Metacom himself into war, was none other than Edward Winslow’s son, Josiah.

The son of Massasoit’s most trusted friend and ally murdered both of his sons. Rather Shakespearian, wouldn’t you say? Such is life in Indian Country. So while Andrew Cuomo’s actions are certainly more tempered and less violent, he earns low marks for originality. At least Josiah Winslow had the decency to wait until his father had passed away before he unraveled the good intentions set forth by his elders.