Amid gambling push, Pamunkey Tribe seeking immediate state approval for Norfolk casino

Pamunkey Indian Tribe Chief Robert Gray presented Gov. Ralph Northam with a deer and pottery at the 341st tax tribute ceremony, during which the Pamunkey and Mattaponi present game hunted on their land in lieu of tax payments under the terms of a treaty signed in 1677.

Worried about getting left behind by a high-profile push to expand gambling, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe said Tuesday it’s seeking immediate state approval for a casino in Norfolk.

“While the Pamunkey Tribe believes the implications of expanded gaming on this scale may benefit from further consideration and study, if the state is ready to move forward, so is the tribe,” said Robert Gray, Pamunkey Indian Tribe Chief, in a statement.

“As a federally-recognized tribe with both the right to engage in gaming activities and the financial backing to make it happen, we believe that if the commonwealth is ready to authorize gaming, our project should be part of it. To consider other projects without taking into consideration the Pamunkey casino in Norfolk and the potential of additional Pamunkey casinos in Virginia would fail to take a much-needed comprehensive approach to gaming.”

A coalition of lawmakers in Bristol, Danville and Portsmouth are in the midst of a high-profile, high-dollar push to get the General Assembly to legalize casinos in those three cities, pitching it as an economic lifeline akin to Amazon’s arrival in Northern Virginia.

The Pamunkey, meanwhile, had been pursuing its own casino, but through federal rules that allow certain recognized tribes to operate casinos.

Gray said they are still planning to follow that path, but said “if the state is moving forward, we should not be left behind.”

Two Norfolk area members of the General Assembly are filing legislation, Sen. Lynwood Lewis and Del. Barry Knight.

“This is about fairness and equal opportunity. The Pamunkey have persevered through significant challenges to earn the rights afforded to them by federal law.  They are moving forward to bring a casino to Hampton Roads through the federal process, but if the Commonwealth is ready for casinos now, then the Pamunkey ought to have the right to participate,” Lewis said in a statement.

As drafted, their legislation closely mirrors framework proposed for the projects in Bristol, Danville and Portsmouth, but limits licenses to federally recognized tribes and to cities with populations greater than 200,000. It maintains the requirement that the localities approve the projects through a voter referendum before licenses are issued.

Lawmakers backing the casino legislation for Bristol, Danville and Portsmouth said they’re not worried about the competing proposal.

“I kind of expected they would. It doesn’t interfere with what I’m trying to do,” said Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson.

Sen. Louise Lucas, a Democrat who represents Portsmouth, just across the water from where a Norfolk casino would be located, said she’s “neutral,” but questioned the Pamunkey’s ancestral claim to Norfolk, which has been challenged by the Nansemond tribe. The Pamunkey-backed legislation now before the General Assembly would appear to sidestep those concerns.