Saturday, September 30, 2006

Democracy and Question 1

With just a few weeks to go until the November election, I find myself troubled by one item on the Rhode Island ballot. There on TV is the Narragansett Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas once again urging me to vote Yes on Question 1 . Yes for a casino in West Warwick as an act of simple fairness to the Narragansetts, and an economic boon to the state.

Sounds logical, generous even. Be kind to Indians: Vote Yes. By this logic it would seem to be a no-brainer. So why am I troubled?

One reason is that I’ve already answered this question, very firmly, back in 1994 when the very same Harrah’s that is behind this effort attempted to bring a casino to my town, West Greenwich.

The strange thing was, they had targeted an available piece of property close to Route 95 that was also in the middle of the Exeter-West Greenwich schools. School buses would be driving by the casino, casino traffic would be driving by the schools. The casino would even be within walking distance of the schools.

The promotional effort, while substantial, was nowhere near as slick as this year’s version. I recall a special Town meeting, where residents were invited to hear the Harrah’s sales talk. There would be an opportunity to ask questions.

The silk-suited men strode confidently back and forth across the stage, stressing the good points for the town. Money for the schools, lower taxes, economic boon. But as I watched them strut back and forth, I was struck by the contrast between these silk-suited ones and the country clothing – and viewpoint – of the audience.

Then too, I thought of our town hall. I had been to enough meetings there to know how difficult democracy is. We had a part-time lawyer, a good man, but how could he ever be a match to the bottomless fleet of lawyers an entity like Harrah’s could project? If we didn’t like what was happening to our town, how could we ever protect it?

Democracy is hard. You have to show up for it, again and again. It’s hard in Iraq as we see on the news. It’s hard in Rhode Island too. Citizens can never take democracy for granted. It is more than a right, more than a privilege. It is a sacred duty.

It means being informed. It means asking questions. It means always looking for the common good, for the right solution. The solution that is a blessing to everyone.

I went home from that meeting and made a sign and stuck it to a tree by my driveway. In big letters it said NO-CASI-NO. I still have it in the shed.

I think the same argument can be made today. I was even thinking that if Harrah’s loves the Narragansetts so much, why don’t they simply donate the dollars they are spending on TV advertising to a scholarship fund for the tribe? Of course we know why. For Harrah’s it is not about the tribe, it is about all the money they are going to make from Rhode Islanders.

There are industries that we should be engaged in that would be both a safeguard and a boon to our state. They include solar, wind, and the emerging energy technologies. We could be mining ocean currents for energy, developing ways to heat our homes and businesses without relying on fossil and nuclear fuels.

These are the technologies and industries of the future. Given the uncertainties in the Middle East, we can be sure these initiatives are way overdue. There may come a time when our very survival depends on them.

I have no problem with people gambling for a little entertainment. It happens in ordinary conversation, men raising the stakes a bit to see who might win. I suspect if we were reduced to playing stick games that an element of luck and daring would endure as part of human nature. Every business startup is a chance at something. Every dream launched.

But let’s not gamble with this. Our future, our government, the control of our towns and cities is in our hands. We choose the direction our lives will take and we choose the future too. Let’s build a future we can be proud of. Let us launch the technologies and industries that will really bless the generations to come.

Gail Murray