Casino battle royale

A look at who’s who in the high-stakes faceoff over question one
By IAN DONNIS  |  October 11, 2006

The casino battle has been raging for so long that it often seems like a permanent part of the Rhode Island landscape. Yet some glimmer of resolution will emerge from the November 7 election, when voters will be asked to approve or reject Question One.

Barring a successful court challenge, a “yes” vote would set the stage for a Harrah’s Entertainment-Narragansett Indian casino. A “no” vote, on the other hand, would represent a setback for the tribe’s long-running casino quest, perhaps setting the Narragansetts on a search for other forms of economic development.

Now, though, in the slightly less than four weeks until Election Day, voters can expect an intensifying blitzkrieg of advertising broadsides, campaign-style events, claims and counter-claims, and political strategizing, in what will likely be the most costly referendum battle ever seen in Rhode Island.

As the battle enters the final stretch, the Phoenix decided to take a look at the leading tacticians on both sides.


As the primary public face of the Narragansetts’ casino campaign, Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas, a strapping former Narragansett High School basketball player who favors flashy suits and pithy quips, is sometimes likened to a rock star.

It’s a fair analogy. As a zealous advocate for the casino cause, Thomas, 45, clearly relishes the rhetorical battle, and his face, the centerpiece of a television commercial that plays on the historic slights suffered by the tribe, is instantly familiar throughout Rhode Island.

A relation of the Indian who gave Roger Williams the land that became Providence, Thomas posits the casino quest first and foremost as a matter of self-sufficiency for the Narragansetts. It’s an effort he has been pursuing since even before becoming the tribe’s leader in 1997.

Thomas is nonetheless as relentlessly on-message as any candidate in campaign season. Asked what has been most personally instructive in the casino fight, he describes how the 2004 state police raid on a Narragansett smoke shop — an ugly incident that yielded a measure of sympathy — led more people to consider the tribe’s plight.

The chief makes good use of anecdotes, describing how two of his three daughters struggle to find meaningful jobs, for example, in part because they lack college degrees, and how the state needs more blue-collar opportunities.

As a charismatic spokesman for his cause, Thomas is doing his utmost to tap support in the urban communities where his tribe needs a big turnout. “I’m going to Chad Brown today,” Thomas said, referring to the Providence public housing project, on October 6. “I don’t think there’s been a politician in Chad Brown since its inception.”

Former governor Lincoln C. Almond became the face of the opposition when Richard Oster, who had been asked by Governor Donald L. Carcieri to lead the anti-casino group Save Our State, left the group over a clash in philosophy.

Quietly effective during his two terms as governor, Almond is sometimes lampooned for what is recalled as his less-than-energetic governing style. The former US attorney, does enjoy, however, an unquestioned reputation for personal integrity.

Almond, a Central Falls native, has described to the ProJo’s M. Charles Bakst how corruption and illegal betting plagued that town until returning World War II veterans cleaned it up in the 1940s.

1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |   next >
  Topics: News Features , Don Carcieri, Trudy Coxe, John Holmes,  More more >
| More

Most Popular
Share this entry with Delicious
    Five years ago, when Farm Fresh Rhode Island (FFRI) launched its mission of promoting Ocean State-produced food, co-founder Noah Fulmer discovered a curious disconnection in the local food chain.
  •   TICKET TO RIDE  |  February 11, 2009
    In April 1999, two weeks after I started on the job at the Providence Phoenix , the FBI raided City Hall, formally unveiling the federal investigation that would land Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr., Rhode Island's rascal king, behind bars.
    During a news conference Tuesday afternoon in the State House rotunda, proponents of significantly expanding publicly financed elections in Rhode Island — a concept they call "Fair Elections" — cited a litany of reasons for why it would be good for the Ocean State and its citizens.
  •   THE UPSIDE OF HOPE IN RHODE ISLAND  |  January 29, 2009
    Everywhere one turns these days, there's seemingly more bad news about Rhode Island: the unemployment rate, one of the highest in the nation, tops 10 percent — and the state's running out of unemployment assistance.
    Former Providence Journal reporter Jan Brogan is out with her fourth mystery, Teaser .

 See all articles by: IAN DONNIS