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A new player on casinos

TUESDAY in Maine was a historic day for New England. For the first time, voters were given a chance to express their views on Native American casinos.

Mainers voted no resoundingly -- by a 2-1 margin -- on a proposition to allow the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Penobscot Nation to open a huge gambling casino. Previously in New England, federal judges, tribal lawyers, lobbyists, and state and federal officials have made such decisions with little public input.

The region's two giant Indian casinos in Connecticut -- the Mashantucket Pequots' Foxwoods and the Mohegan Sun -- were created without substantial public debate. In the wake of Maine's vote, those days are over. From now on, tribes, wannabe tribes, their Las Vegas and Atlantic City financial backers, state officials, and congressional delegations will have to pay attention to public opinion. Maine has redefined how New Englanders think about the spread of Indian casinos in the region. Mainers have made it respectable to say no to the casino tribes.

Six weeks ago no one predicted Tuesday's stunning defeat of the tribes and their backers. The progambling forces, led by Portland attorney Tom Tureen, who put the Pequots on the map, looked as if they were going to steamroll the opposition. They held out the promise of 10,000 jobs and $100 million in annual revenues for the state government. As far as they were concerned, this was a no-brainer. In a noteworthy act of hubris, they named their campaign "Think About It," implying that only an idiot would oppose the proposal.

However, when Mainers began to think about it, they didn't think much of it. They questioned whether gambling was the way to create high-wage jobs, boost incomes, and raise needed government revenues. They feared out-of-control proliferation of Indian casinos as Connecticut faces today. They worried about the social costs often associated with gambling such as traffic jams, crime, and financial ruin. They disliked a provision in the referendum allowing a kiddie casino. And they wondered whether the complex legislation underlying the proposition would allow Maine's federally protected tribes to re-negotiate their current legal and political status at the expense of the state and surrounding towns.

In the end, what they feared most was a loss of control over their own lives. In the debate preceding the vote, they began to grasp the far-reaching legal, political, and social implications of Indian casinos. They could have voted to follow Connecticut's example and allow the creation of a gargantuan, semi-autonomous gambling operation substantially beyond the reach of Maine. The legislation behind the proposition stated that Connecticut's legal compact with its casino tribes would govern the casino in Maine, too. In this, however, Tureen and the tribes overreached, and Mainers rebelled.

Where does this vote leave the issue of Indian casinos? In Maine, the defeat was so decisive that Tureen, his Las Vegas backers, and the two tribes will have to reconsider the wisdom of trying again soon. They reportedly spent $7.2 million on the campaign, a record for Maine, and have nothing to show for it. That said, they may come back with a new, improved -- i.e., less ambitious -- proposition.

Is Maine going to be the rule or the exception in New England? It's hard to say. I spent three years investigating the rise of the casino tribes in Connecticut, and I learned that the fabulous pots of money at stake in these Indian casinos can seduce and co-opt tribes and elected officials alike. As long as a federally recognized tribe can hit the jackpot, as the Pequots did in Connecticut, casino tribes and their backers will keep pushing. And as long as the weak economy and the fiscal crisis remain in New England, our governors and legislatures will be tempted.

Nonetheless, this time voters rejected Indian casinos. Yes, they wanted the promised jobs. Yes, they were inclined to help tribes. But they were not willing to surrender local control over how they live to achieve those goals. In this, Mainers showed uncommon sense.

Brett D. Fromson is author of "Hitting the Jackpot: The Inside Story of the Richest Indian Tribe in History."

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