Why Did Scott Walker Sell WI's Poorest Native Tribe Down the River?

Why Did Scott Walker Sell WI’s Poorest Native Tribe Down the River?

Republican Governor of Wisconsin Scott Walker waited for a year and a half before officially deciding on February 19 to crush the dreams of some of the poorest people in Wisconsin. The Menominee tribe, a sovereign Native nation with a population of roughly 8,700, suffers from poverty and unemployment double the average of the state of Wisconsin, and greater than the national average during the Great Depression. With an annual per capita income of $10,600, Menominee County is the poorest county in Wisconsin and the 38th poorest county in the United States.

The Menominee were poised to solve their economic problems with a Hard Rock casino in Kenosha, WI, that would have created 6,500 to 10,000 or more jobs. The Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs approved the project in August, 2013, stating that it would address the tribe’s “significant unmet needs,” and would not be “detrimental” to the area. The FBIA gave the governor a year to make a decision, but Walker postponed his decision until after his reelection last year. A majority of Wisconsin voters supported the casino, and the project enjoyed bipartisan support locally. Yet Walker decided to reject the casino. The decision has caused widespread anger in Wisconsin.

Urban Milwaukee columnist Bruce Murphy wrote,

“This is one of the most astounding political decisions I’ve seen in more than three decades of covering state and local politics.”

Indeed, the casino offered benefits galore for the state, and the Menominee were offering the state and taxpayers a better deal than the larger Potowatomi and Ho-Chunk tribes, which already have casinos in Wisconsin. The Kenosha casino would have been one of the state’s largest employers and largest taxpayers. It would have paid 7.5% of its annual revenue in taxes to the state, generating $1.2 billion over 25 years. The Menominee also offered to pay $220 million to help fund a new NBA arena for the Milwaukee Bucks. The Menominee tribe were trying to catapult from Wisconsin’s poorest residents to the state’s most generous citizens. Members of the Menominee marched 155 miles over 6 days in subzero windchill in the hopes of meeting with Walker the day before his decision became official. Stomping on their hopes, and thousands of jobs, Walker wouldn’t even meet with the tribe’s leaders, even though they were on the other side of his door.

The only major drawback to the casino was potential litigation. The Potowatomi tribe threatened to sue if they lost revenue due to the new casino in Kenosha. But external legal advisers said the risk of a successful lawsuit was negligible, and the federal government wouldn’t allow anti-competitiveness in Indian gaming. Regardless, the Menominee pledged to put up a $275 million bond to more than cover any costs the state suffered from fending off a lawsuit from the Potowatomi, however unlikely. Shortly before Walker’s decision, the FBIA rejected the Potowatomi’s attempt to amend its contract with the state to put taxpayers on the hook for any revenue it lost in competition with the Kenosha casino. The bond and the feds rebuking the Potowatomi effectively made the lawsuit issue moot.

But Walker pretended that the lawsuit was a major risk and limply blamed his decision on his predecessor.

Since the casino would have been such a boon to the state, and enjoyed bipartisan support, it raises the question of why Walker really rejected it. The likely answers to this question are shocking.

In this six-part series, my colleague Akira Watts and I explore the social and economic impact of the decision, the reasons behind it, and what it tells us about a potential Walker presidency. Akira Watts writes first about the crude political calculations that may have motivated the decision, and second, about the petty revenge that may have motivated Walker. In my next part, I explore how far right conservative “kingmakers” in the Iowa caucus played on Walker’s ambitions to convince him to kill the casino. I follow up with an analysis of how the lobbying and public relations effort that killed the casino bears a striking resemblance to one of the biggest corruption schemes in American history. Watts concludes the series by considering the implications of this case for a potential Walker presidency.