HomeA Bad Process Poisons the Civic Well: On Norfolk's Proposed Casino

10.28.19. An Antonym Op-Ed:
A Bad Process Poisons the Civic Well:On Norfolk's Proposed Casino

What you need to know: Norfolk's City Council voted 7 to 1 in favor of a deal with the Pamunkey Native American Tribe to build a $700 million dollar casino near Harbor Park. Councilwoman Andria McClellan was the lone holdout. A group of citizens launched a petition for a referendum to stop the project, but were not successful.

Plant your feet on the pier facing the Elizabeth river. Try to spot the encroaching tide. Stretch out your arms and extend your senses. Can you not feel the imminent storm? Norfolk is a city facing enormous challenges.

We're living on land that is sinking into the sea. At last count our number of homeless was close to two thousand and that figure is rising. We spend less per student than surrounding cities and our capital infrastructure needs close to a half a billion dollars to rebuild. There are reports of actual rats in some of our elementary schools. Our credit card is maxxed out. Our per capita annual income is twenty-five thousand less than our two nearest neighboring cities. And our individual poverty rate is at 22%.

The answer to these woes, according to City Hall? A seven-hundred million dollar casino and resort to be built by the Pamunkey Native American Tribe. Twenty acres of waterfront land to be sold to this end for ten million. And it appears that our leadership is hell-bent on ramming it through. The final details of the deal were made public on September 10th. They sat and nodded their heads as people flooded their chambers in opposition fourteen days later. And then voted 7 to 1 to approve it without addressing the concerns raised. In response, a citizen led initiative was launched to overturn the vote through referendum. It failed to meet the number of signatures within the required thirty day period.

And so the question of whether or not gambling is about to become downtown’s largest industry is seemingly settled. As if no one has voiced an opposing opinion at all.

A well funded effort to paint casino opposition as an irrational non-issue.

Listen to the pro-casino folks. Pay no attention to the PR Firm behind the curtain: They've charged that the signatures mean nothing because they weren't turned in. There are no signatures. And if there are, they’re the signatures of “pearl-clutchers” and self-righteous moralizers out to ruin a guaranteed good thing. They’re the signatures of indigenous hating racists who just want to spoil the fun because they loathe Native Americans. They’re the signatures of a tiny minority of the city. Hardly worthy of notice.

This is of course, complete and utter excrement of a bovine variety.

I can’t attest as to the motivations of everyone who put their John Hancock to paper, but I do know more than a few of the folks who were running the effort and I can personally champion their character. The mudslinging against them is palpable, but they aren’t foaming at the mouth with anti-tribal hatred. Frankly, the accusation reeks of white people cloaking their enterprise in the garb of indigenous rights. Perverting the rhetoric of anti-racism to advance commerce. And that makes me more than a little sick to my stomach.

Why the petition failed.

The so-called grassroots uprising in support of the casino was revealed after a bit of domain registration digging, to be powered by a Richmond lobbying firm called Capital Results. They've enlisted the support of prominent citizens—some of whom stand to profit from the environment a casino would bring. Match that with the city launching a campaign to urge signers to remove their names and you start to detect the odor of money. Pitted against a group of inexperienced canvassers whose leader fell out halfway into the effort, is it any surprise that the effort fell through?

According to my sources there were sheets with signatures on them that didn’t make the final tally because some of the people collecting them didn’t show up at the end. This likely means that were more than enough voices to push it to a vote, but that human frailty mucked up the process. Counting only the names that made it to the final count, there were 3680 out of the required 4000. When it became clear that they didn't have what was needed, that part of the effort came to a close.

Does opposition simply not exist because they weren’t turned in? Nonsense. The code governing veto referendums has no mechanism to accept a failed effort. Failed petitions aren’t filed, they’re simply thrown away. And yet casino proponents have seized on the lack of any paperwork being turned in as representing zero support for the initiative. This is absolute ignorance of the process at best—and intentionally disingenuous at worst. It's a sleight of hand trick with language. And patently dishonest.

What three-thousand, six hundred, and eighty signatures really mean in this city.

You might think to yourself that 3680 signatures in a city of 250,000 people doesn't sound like a lot. But if the petition were a person who was running for a council seat last election, how would it have done? On its own it represents 34.4% of those who voted in that election. It would have beaten Tommy Smigiel by over 1700 votes. It represents over twice the number of votes Paul Riddick received. It's 2252 more votes than Mamie Johnson got, and 2363 more votes than were cast for Martin Thomas. It would have beaten Courtney Doyle by 280 votes.

The Council should be paying attention to these numbers. And it shouldn’t behave as the city is overwhelmingly on its side for this deal, because it isn’t. A significant and active portion of the electorate has spoken. Ignore those voices at your own political peril.

Casting Anti-Casino as Anti-Native American

Circling back to the question of equating support of a casino with support of a tribe, let’s be clear—the Pamunkey aren’t the investors here. Not really. This is a project that has been set up to be the only indigenous organization in the state allowed to run a gaming establishment. Funded by a white billionaire from out of state who has made his fortune regularly using tribal immunity to circumvent gambling laws as cover for obscene profits. Why are the Pamunkey the only tribe recognized by the state of Virginia who are not banned by law from engaging in gaming enterprises? Who slipped the language into state code for tribal recognition? Who lobbied for it?

Painting people who have real concerns about this as anti-native is reductive. Using anti-racist language as a tactic to cover unsound ideas is straight out of the playbook of the Alt Right. It’s valid to question the Pamunkeys' right to the land. It’s well documented that the tribe never occupied it. It’s been said as much by another tribe — the Nansemond. Historical records clearly show that the ground Norfolk occupies today belonged to a tribe wiped off the face of the earth by the Powhatan Confederacy, of which both the Pamunkey and the Nansemond were a part. Texas is part of the US. Does that mean that two hundred years from now they'll be able to claim land in Virginia?

Make no mistake. Reparations should be made to natives. An injustice still needs righting there. But in Norfolk, it wasn't white people who killed off the native population. It was the Powhatan themselves. The ancestors of even the Nansemond didn’t live here for more than a few decades. In any other federal administration, these claims would be challenged. But Trump’s Department of the Interior has been rife with charges of corruption, and there’s little faith that it will act as anything other than a rubber stamp for the deal.

Who stands to profit from this?

To hear it from Councilwoman Doyle as she pitched the casino to the Park Place Civic League a few weeks back, it’s basically free money. Our schools are literally crumbling and money is desperately needed to rebuild them. The land hasn’t generated tax revenue in many years. No one else has expressed any interest in developing it. The Pamunkey are asking for nothing for infrastructure and will pay what the city feels is a fair market value for land that has no other use. Free. Money.

From the buried books of my youth rings out a warning voice: “TANSTAAFL.” There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. If someone offers you free money? Run away screaming. There’s always a tab to be paid at the end.

We’re about to spend hundreds of millions to develop land we’re displacing our most vulnerable residents from in the St. Paul corridor. Who knows what a fair market value for this land will be in a decade? Probably quite a bit more than the paltry 500K an acre they’re getting now for it. Why sell it for short term gain? Who profits from that? The folks living around there now?

I kid. We know who profits. Norfolk’s developers will be tapped to make construction bids, of course. There are fortunes to be made building this thing. Could that be a reason the council is so keen to seal this deal? Is that why so little time was given to the public to react before the council signed on the dotted line? In a city where less than ten percent of the electorate bothered to participate in our last election, who do they represent? The citizenry? Or the people who are going to build this thing?

Perusing public campaign finance records yields interesting data. When you factor total donations of a thousand or more to each council person, excluding money from political organizations and self funded expenditures, there are alarming patterns. Consider the following information:

Percentage of Total Donations of $1000 or More From Developers

Tommy Smigiel: 72.9%.
Paul Riddick: 49.9%.
Courtney Doyle: 48.5%
Angelia Williams Graves: 40%
Mamie Johnson: 35.5%

*Excluding self-funded contributions, contributions from family members, business entities owned by the councilperson, or from political organizations. Developers were defined as individuals who own construction companies, legal firms who set deals up for them, or other organizations with interests aligning with development. Link to Data

Yeah. That looks bad.

Martin Thomas clocks in low with only 17.4%. Kenny Alexander is at a mere 18.4%, but his overall contributions from developers dwarf the rest of the council at nearly 200K—more money from developers than most members of the council have raised from all channels combined. Andria McClellan has taken the least from those most favored to make profits on this deal at 12.5%, though to be fair she was the outsider in her only election and her campaign was largely self funded. Whether she’ll continue to eschew developer contributions in the future remains to be seen. I'd like to say that I hope she will, but doing so would probably be political suicide. Developers doing business in front of a city council they helped elect is just one more reason why this country desperately needs campaign finance reform—but that's neither here nor there.

I’ll be clear—I’m not alleging corruption. But if you think these kinds of contributions don’t gain access to the ears of those who make the decisions in this city, well.. Let’s just say that you must have been raised in a pretty sheltered place. The mere appearance of corruption is as damaging to our faith in local government as actual grift.

I desperately want to believe that our elected officials are decent people trying to serve the public interest. But in a city where Anthony Burfoot was removed from office for taking bribes? Where the previous Sheriff has just been indicted for the same offenses? Where the names of private citizens convicted of said bribery show up prominently on these finance records? Ramming this deal through while ignoring outcry against it does more than simply look bad. It erodes the public trust. It poisons the well. It actively encourages the rot that erodes faith in public political service. That destroys our democracy. McClellan stood alone, not in opposition exactly, but at least for a more publicly transparent approach. Every other councilperson voted for it, participating in a dodgy looking process that can only further damage our local electoral participation. Too many folks believe with every fiber of their being that the system is rigged. Conducting city business with even the remotest appearance that it's crooked further encourages cynicism that serves the people poorly.

. . .

Buying High. Selling Low? And other questions.

Councilwoman Doyle is right that the land has generated no tax revenue for years. But she fails to point out that one of the reasons for this is that the property that used to be there--the Boathouse, a hallowed concert venue to those who refer to themselves as Hardcore Norfolk, was destroyed by a hurricane. Why do we think that spot on the water is a good place for investment in a city that is only beginning to struggle with climate change and the extreme weather events that come with it? Why would we pin our hopes and dreams for a better city on something that is most likely to be claimed by the sea?

Others point to the fact that this area is the de facto drainage point for the St Paul’s redevelopment corridor. Why has no ecological impact study been performed?

Why are those calling for such steps to be performed being dismissed as cranky moralists by the council? Is it simply not possible that this land should be left undeveloped altogether?

Why is every economic study performed over the past three decades indicating that casinos are at best revenue generators that only slightly break above even being ignored?

Why are we embracing the supposed ancestral rights of one tribe while turning away from another that vociferously disputes the Pamunkey claim? I've talked to natives throughout the state who believe that the Pamunkey are flat out stealing this land from another tribe. Do we care about that?

Why is a tribe with a history of anti-black sentiments so ingrained that intermarriage was forbidden by tribal law being allowed to set up shop here without even so much as a provision requiring they adhere to Equal Opportunity Employment laws, given that they are exempt from them at the Federal level? Especially considering that Norfolk is over 43% African American.

Why does no one care that the supposed grassroots organization supporting the casino has a website built by a lobbying firm hired by the casino?

Lastly, but not least, even if those of us opposed to this deal were set up as such solely because we oppose gambling? Why is that invalid? The history of legalized gambling in this country is inexorably tied up in misery, crime, and the worst instincts of humanity. Murder. Prostitution. Addiction.

Again and again and again, ask yourself—who profits?

And don’t tell me the schools. Because that’s never been the case in any other city where this has happened. We always find away to spend the money that’s supposed to go to them on something else. And even if we follow through this time, the revenue from this is a fraction of what we need to fix our educational infrastructure.

Is that drop in the bucket worth a ten percent increase in personal bankruptcies?

Is it worth disruption of a downtown we’ve maxed out our credit card to revitalize?

Is it worth the increase in crime? Every reputable study performed over the past three decades suggest that this is what’s going to come along with those blackjack tables.

What will it do to out hallowed music scene? Will the tax-advantaged casino stages crowd out local venues and drive them to closure?

In a city that is already stressed by so little taxable property, why does it make sense to happily take even more off the tax rolls?

. . .

Never forget the history of human suffering that is inexorably built into the foundation of enterprises like these. Games that exists as a playground for the rich while crushing the poor. Pay attention to where those profits really come from. You’ll find that it’s through digital gaming machines designed to suck every last dollar out of those playing them. Regardless of whether they can afford it. Is this what we've become? A city so desperate for revenue that we're willing to throw our most vulnerable citizens to the sharks for a fraction of what we actually need to rebuild?

Take a walk around this city. Pay attention to what they're building. Condos regular people can't afford to live in. Pay attention to the marketing. Luxury. Exclusive. Elite. Mostly snatched up by corporations to house the people vacuuming money out of our economy into the coffers of the one percent. Pushing the citizenry further and further from the halls of power. Now close your eyes. Imagine the hogs at the trough, slurping away. So engorged with excess that they can nary move. While the impoverished look on helplessly. Starving in the streets outside. Beating themselves senseless against the walls, desperate to get in.

That's what a casino is.

Call your councilperson. Demand that they listen.

And when they don't? Get out and vote for someone who will.

Addendum: After the publication of this piece, a key figure from within the petition movement commented as to whether there would have been enough signatures if the missing signature sheets had been turned in. "Just to clarify the point you made about there probably having been enough to force a referendum, that's definitely not accurate. Having 4,000 signatures on paper won't force a referendum. You need 4,000 signatures from qualified voters that make it through the verification process the registrar performs. During the elected school board referendum, we collected over 17k in order to get around 11k valid ones. And that was without an effort to have people withdraw names and no high powered lobbying firm that was ready to pay lawyers to stand over the shoulders of the registrar during the verification process. To get 4,000 valid signatures, we would have needed at least 5,500 and likely upwards of 6,000. Meaning we were really no where close to how many we needed. Had we gotten 4,001 signatures, we would have had lawyers, lobbyists, and the city running a full scale intimidation and retaliation campaign to knock off as many valid signatures as possible in addition to the ones they attempted to disqualify for other reasons."

Written by Jeff Hewitt