Scott Walker, presumptive front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, has been a popular figure in the news of late, as much for a string of ill-considered and bizarre statements as for the wretched policies he has implemented as governor of Wisconsin. Yes, Walker is the front-runner, but he’s in trouble. And, right in Scott Walker’s backyard, another story is developing, one that is potentially as damaging to his political ambitions as anything yet revealed.
It began in a seemingly plain fashion. On January 23rd, Scott Walker rejected a bid by the Menominee tribe to open an off-reservation casino in the city of Kenosha. On the face of it, this is a simple tragedy for the Menominee tribe, one of the poorest in the state, who had been waiting for over a year for Walker’s decision. Since the project had already been approved by the U.S. Interior Department, way back in 2013, there had been reason for the tribe to be cautiously optimistic, though Walker’s repeated delays in issuing a final decision had led to more than a little anxiety.
In the wake of this devastating decision, members of the tribe made a last-ditch effort to convince Walker to change his mind. They walked miles from Keshena to Madison, braving freezing temperatures and bitter wind, trudging through the impoverished land of their homes, hoping simply that their effort might convince the governor to sit down with them, one final time, to discuss the issue. Their efforts were for naught: Scott Walker refused even to meet with them.
On the one hand, this decision isn’t a surprise, The planned casino was opposed by both the Potawatomi and Ho-Chunk tribes, who feared that the new casino would lead to loss of revenue at their own casinos. The Potawatomi have been withholding revenue payments to the state, in compensation for any anticipated loss of revenue, and the state itself might have been forced to refund past revenue payments to the Potawatomi. The Potawatomi have also donated modest amounts to Walker’s campaigns in the past, though that small number is dwarfed by the revenue currently being withheld. (For the record, the Menominee have never contributed to any of Walker’s campaigns.) Seems a fairly open and shut case: rather than anger tribes who are already generating revenue for the state, Walker did the sensible thing.
Except the Menominee had already reached an agreement to pay the state $1billion over the next 25 years, to compensate for any lost revenue. They even offered to sweeten the deal by building a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks, which would otherwise have been funded with taxpayer dollars. And the planned casino would have brought between 6,500 and 10,000 jobs to the state which, given Walker’s poor record on job growth, scarcely seems a bad thing. Looking at the situation from a purely economic perspective, it doesn’t make much sense. Walker had nothing to lose.
And consider one detail of Walker’s presidential ambitions, which run directly through Iowa. Iowa’s Republican electorate is notoriously conservative, enough that some are so staunchly opposed to gambling as to personally contact Walker to urge him to oppose any expansion of gambling. It would seem that Scott Walker is so eager to be president that he is willing to allow out-of-state interests to influence his decision on a decidedly in-state issue.
And despite all that, there’s a bit of casino money at play in Iowa as well. Nowhere near as much as the$1.15 billion in revenue generated in Wisconsin in 2011. No, Iowa’s casinos came a distant second, with a mere $318 million in 2013. But Iowa aims to expand, having broken ground on a new casino in Jeffersonin 2014. Is it entirely implausible that Walker would willingly sabotage an enterprise in his own state, to give hope to the ambitions of Iowa and garner a few additional votes?
But this story goes further than mere electoral pandering and a shady money trail. Scott Walker and the Menominee tribe have a history, one which lends itself to speculating that perhaps this incident was as much about revenge as it is about electoral politics.
In this six-part series, my colleague Marc Belisle begins by analyzing the economic impact of Walker’s rejection of the casino.