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.

THE PUBLIC FACE

Pro-casino
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.”

Anti-casino
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.

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