The discovery of a document with Sen. Elizabeth Warren declaring her race is “American Indian” in her own hand has re-opened the controversy over unsubstantiated claims of minority status yet again. But even if she survives this latest incident or resolves the issue once and for all, Warren’s Native American troubles still won’t be at an end.
For a year, Liz Warren has been working on behalf of the Massachusetts-based Mashpee Wampanoag tribe to secure a $1 billion casino deal with an international gaming corporation. As a result, she’s abandoned long-held social-justice views of gambling’s impact on the poor and vulnerable; linked herself to a troubled Indian tribe whose leaders have been either forced out or jailed; and made herself a champion of a scandal-ridden billion-dollar multinational conglomerate
How did Warren wind up in the middle of what has come to be known as the “Mashpee Mess?” Coincidence or not, it started at the same time she began an overt effort to rehabilitate her standing among the Native American community.
The Boston Herald first broke the story that Harvard had listed professor Elizabeth Warren as a minority hire during her 2012 US Senate race. At first, Senator Warren denied any knowledge that she was being represented as a Native American faculty member—a claim that was later proven untrue.
Eventually the public record revealed that, beginning in 1986 (the same year she filled out the now-infamous Texas State Bar form) and continuing through at least 2004, Warren repeatedly declared her race to be “American Indian.” She was so dogged in the matter that, in 1989, two years after being hired at the University of Pennsylvania, she went back to the administration and changed her racial designation from white to Native America.
As a Democrat in solidly-liberal Massachusetts, Warren is safe from any political repercussions from these revelations. She handily defeated incumbent Republican Scott Brown in 2012 and crushed her token GOP opponent six years later. But when President Trump began mocking her presidential aspirations with the nickname “Pocahontas,” the politics changed. When it comes to lockstep party loyalty, America isn’t Massachusetts.
And so, according to the New York Times and Washington Post, Warren began a concerted effort to repair her standing among Native Americans and, it was hoped, neutralize the charge that she had inappropriately claimed a legacy of Indian heritage she did not deserve. The most high-profile part of that effort was the DNA test stunt, widely viewed as a fiasco for both failing to demonstrate that she is in fact American Indian, and offending Native Americans by suggesting that standing in the community is determined by genetics.
However, the DNA test actually occurred about a year into the effort, which was kicked off in January of 2018 with Warren’s surprise visit to the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, DC. Her unannounced appearance and speech received glowing reviews from the press. And then a few weeks later, she co-sponsored the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act. Its sole purpose is to seal the deal for a $1 billion casino project for the tribe.
Sen. Warren has acknowledged that her decision to embrace a casino is a major reversal for a longtime opponent of casino gambling. Warren opposed the 2011 law that legalized casino gambling in the Bay State, and in 2014 she announced her support for a referendum effort to repeal it.
“It’s a tough call to make,” Warren said at the time. “People need jobs, but gambling can also be a real problem economically for a lot of people. I didn’t support gambling the first time around and I don’t expect to support it [now].”
This is hardly a surprise. Casino gambling is often portrayed by progressives as a greed-driven industry that preys on the vulnerable and desperate. And yet, just four years after she voted against it, Warren was actively advocating for a casino project designed to enrich two organizations involved in scandals of their own.
For years, the Mashpee Wampanoag’s tribal government has been living—and living well—off of money fronted to them by Genting Malaysia, a multinational gaming company, in advance of their proposed casino plans. In fact, it appears some members of tribal leadership may have been living too well. The former tribal council chairman responsible for initiating the push for a casino, Glenn Marshall, was sent to prison on charges of fraud and embezzlement from his time working with notoriously-corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff—who also went to prison on corruption charges.
The current chairman, Cedric Cromwell, owes tens of thousands of dollars in back taxes and has been stripped of his fiduciary responsibilities for the tribe, including his role as the head of the tribe’s gaming authority. And a recently published audit of the tribal government found “a myriad of deficiencies and weaknesses in internal controls, including accounting policies and procedures more than a decade out-of-date, discrepancies in the pay rates of employees, and lack of regular inventory of capital assets,” the Cape Cod Times reports. As a result, the tribe is at risk of theft and fraud.
This is the organization into which Genting Malaysia poured nearly half a billion dollars of up-front money against 40 percent of future revenue from the proposed casino. Unfortunately for the Mashpees—and Genting–federal law prohibits tribes recognized after 1934 from receiving the kind of “sovereign territory” land claim the tribe needs for a casino site. Both the federal courts and Department of Interior have ruled against them, so it will literally take an act of Congress to move this project forward.
Which means Genting Malaysia has potentially billions in revenue riding on Sen. Warren’s efforts to get that tribal legislation passed.
The company has issues of its own. It’s currently at the center of a massive kickback scandal that brought down the Malaysian government in 2018. Genting is also involved in a billion-dollar lawsuit against Disney and Fox Entertainment over another failed casino project.
The ironies for Sen. Warren are impossible to overlook: An avowed opponent of predatory businesses, Warren is pushing a casino in a distressed, low-income section of Massachusetts. A warrior against big business, she’s helping a billion-dollar company seal a massive deal and recover hundreds of millions in potential losses. And an advocate for transparency and oversight, she’s aiding a tribal government rife with mismanagement and accusations of corruption.
All in an effort, many people believe, to mitigate the political damage from her inauthentic claims to be an American Indian.
The question some casino industry observers are asking now is whether it helps or hurts the Mashpee’s cause going forward to have Warren involved? Do advocates for the casino really want Warren, with her problematic past, pushing a Native American project?
Rep. Bill Keating, who represents the Mashpee Wampanoag community in Congress and supports the casino project, said through a spokesperson that “regarding Senator Warren, Congressman Keating believes that any and all support for the bill from Members on both sides of the aisle in both houses of Congress is helpful.”
But when asked if Rep. Keating had asked his fellow Bay Stater Sen. Warren to support the project going forward, his office declined to comment.
“Elizabeth Warren is the gift that keeps on giving to opponents of First Light [the name of the proposed casino project],” said a source in the casino industry. “Her problems become their problems—and vice versa.” And it’s true: Every time there’s another negative story about the Mashpee casino mess, Sen. Warren’s involvement– and her American Indian issues– are back in the press.
Sen. Warren insists that her presidential bid is on track and plans to make her formal announcement on Saturday in the working-class community of Lawrence, MA before campaigning in New Hampshire and Iowa. When asked by a reporter on Tuesday if she planned to withdraw, Warren refused to answer and walked away.
The problems she’s created by embracing a Native American casino project cannot be avoided so easily.