What's the story behind Suffolk County's sudden willingness to take a serious look at the idea of a Shinnecock casino on Long Island?
Let's be honest: The driving force is not contrition over the way Albany has treated the Shinnecock Indian Nation. The State Legislature took most of the tribe's land away in 1859 to make way for the Long Island Rail Road. Though key county legislators are well aware of that sad history, the real bottom line is Suffolk's hunger for increased revenue.
The Shinnecocks are OK with that cold calculus, and so are we. This page has always been hesitant about casino gambling, because it too often sucks money out of the pockets of the poor. And when the Shinnecocks proposed to build a casino in Hampton Bays, at the bottleneck of all traffic bottlenecks, it seemed like a horrendous idea.
So we opposed it, but always with a twinge of sadness, because we saw that the Shinnecocks viewed a casino as the best bet to provide decent jobs for a tribe suffering from far too much unemployment. And we tempered our criticism of the Hampton Bays site with a call for the notoriously slow Bureau of Indian Affairs to act on the tribe's petition for federal recognition.
Actually, the Shinnecocks were on a federal list of recognized tribes for decades, until the middle of the last century. Then some bureaucrat took the tribe off, without an act of Congress or anything resembling due process. That alone entitles them to be on a fast track. But even a 2005 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Platt, saying that the Shinnecocks are a bonafide tribe, has not definitively resolved the issue. Still, there's a growing sense that full federal recognition isn't far off.
That's the background to a conversation between two Suffolk County legislators, Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook) and Legis. Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon), chairman of the committee overseeing economic development for the county.
The prospect of a casino bringing in thousands of jobs and millions in revenue appealed to them. They also had a visit from the tribe's lawyer, George Stankevich, and they visited the reservation. In May, Horsley's committee heard from tribal leaders and experts on the positive impact of Indian gaming in Connecticut. The tribe has had a contentious relationship with the Town of Southampton, so its leaders were pleased to have county legislators listening respectfully.
This month, the legislature voted to create a task force to study the feasibility of a casino in Suffolk. The Hampton Bays site is still a bad idea, but if the tribe can either buy or accept a donation of land somewhere else, it can become, in effect, a part of the reservation.
The Shinnecocks want the site to be as close as possible to their home in Southampton, so that members of the tribe can commute easily to jobs at the casino. And the Suffolk legislators obviously want it in Suffolk. But there's also a chance that the best site might turn out to be at Belmont Park racetrack in Elmont.
In any case, the task force should give the Shinnecocks a careful, respectful hearing of their casino plan - and give taxpayers a dispassionate report on its pros and cons. On this issue, it's time for cool analysis to replace heated contention.