Rhode Island Pools Backpeddle Side-step and Squirm

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 Settle it in court, R.I. delegation says
The state’s two senators and two representatives refuse to blame either side for Monday’s melee.

WASHINGTON — Members of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation, while deploring the violence of Monday’s confrontation between members of the state police and the Narragansett Indian tribe, refused to assess responsibility for the incident Monday and urged the two parties to settle their differences in court.

With the exception of Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee — who said be believes it is unlawful for the tribe to sell tax-free cigarettes — the legislators also declined to offer views about whether tribal sovereignty entitles the Narragansetts to operate a smoke shop without state approval.

Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, once the delegation’s lone defender of the tribe’s efforts to seek a gambling casino over state objections, said in an interview that he does not know whether the smoke shop is legal and does not expect to take a position until the issue is settled by the courts.

Said Kennedy in a statement issued by his office: “I do not believe it is the place of a congressman to pass judgment on who is right and who is wrong in this instance. That is why we have a judicial system in place and I believe a resolution should be borne out in that arena.

“In the meantime, I would encourage both sides to mediate this dispute at the negotiating table in an effort to avoid this type of confrontation in the future. It is my hope that we can avoid the type of altercation that most of Rhode Island saw yesterday on the news and come to a settlement that is acceptable to both sides,” Kennedy said.

Sen. Jack Reed and Rep. James Langevin — both opponents of the tribe’s pursuit of a gambling enterprise without voter approval — declined to state a view about the tax-free tobacco business. Reed also declined to be interviewed on the subject, issuing only a printed statement.

Langevin, who represents the tribe and its neighbors in South County, said in an interview, “The state and the tribe both believe their positions are justified.” He said the legality of the smoke shop should be settled in the courts or through negotiation.

Speaking of the video images of the physical clash in Charlestown, Langevin said, “Certainly the scene was disturbing but sometimes pictures don’t tell the entire story and I’m reluctant to pass judgment until I’ve heard from everyone involved.”

Chafee said in an interview that he believes there are limits on Narragansett tribal sovereignty, based on the 1978 federal law that settled the tribe’s claim to lands in the state. “From what I understand, the 1978 agreement was a trade of land for an agreement [by the tribe] to abide by all the local and state laws,” said Chafee, “and to me it sounds like these tobacco taxes are state law.”

But Chafee said he “understands the frustration” of the Narragansetts, who have seen a steady expansion of state-regulated video gambling. “Rhode Island keeps voting down casinos for the Narragansetts, yet Rhode Islanders are streaming across the border to Connecticut,” where two tribes operate lucrative casinos.

“I can understand that they want a piece of it,” said Chafee. He said he remains opposed to casino gambling but added, “there has got to be some way” to consider the tribe’s desire for some portion of state gambling revenue.

Reed said in a printed statement that the courts should settle the dispute.

“The current legal process must be accompanied by an ongoing civil dialogue that respects each side while recognizing that our courts are the best forum for resolving complex issues of state and tribal sovereignties,” Reed said.

Originally written By: BY JOHN E. MULLIGAN
Journal Washington Bureau

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