Dan Brown, Head of the Ho-Chunk
Gaming Operations in Madison
|Dan Brown is the executive manager of Ho-Chunk
Gaming-Madison and has been involved, off and on, with
Ho-Chunk gaming since 1993.
Part 2 of 3
By Jonathan Gramling
American Indian gaming is a relatively recent phenomenon. When Federal Judge Barbara Crabb
ruled in 1981 that the state of Wisconsin lost its power to regulate bingo games on state
reservations when it legalized bingo in the state — Wisconsin’s American Indian tribes are
sovereign nations — it began a chain of events that led to the establishment of Indian gaming on
many Wisconsin reservations. By 2004, Dan Brown, the current manager of Ho-Chunk Gaming
Madison, was running the Wisconsin Dells casino, and was butting heads with the Ho-Chunk
leadership over Ho-Chunk entitlements, a hard trade-off between keeping the funds for the tribe
growing from casino revenues to meet the needs of the Nation and making up for over a century of
Brown spent a fractious four years as executive manager of the casino. Due to his frustration,
Brown wrote an op-ed for the Wisconsin State Journal. Brown’s employment was terminated.
Brown’s termination created a crossroads in Brown’s life. He could move back to Indiana and
continue working as a probation agent or the like or he could rethink the issues and the situation
and remain with the Ho-Chunk Nation. And then he heard the voice of wisdom in the voice of an
elder, his mother, a Ho-Chunk legislator.
“I was angry at the tribe,” Brown said. “I had discussions with my mother. She said, ‘You’re not
mad at the tribe. You’re mad at the situation. You can’t think like that. You can’t hate on your own tribe. You have to be thinking about what this really means. There
are some individuals who have done you dirty, but you can’t think like that.’ That was huge for me. After that, I was off work for about a year. And I was trying to think
that I needed to get away from the tribe. It was very hurtful. It was very difficult. I lost my house, the only house I had ever owned. I was considering my options and I
was thinking, ‘Maybe I will just go back to Indiana. I will find something back there and leave the tribe behind me.’ But there was something in me that said that I
needed to stick this out. I was going to come back.”
For the next few years, Brown ran for the Ho-Chunk legislature and on the third try, in 2007, he was elected and during the first official session, he was elected the
vice-president of the Ho-Chunk Nation.
“I’m honored, but I’m also a little bit afraid because I was wondering if I was being led to slaughter,” Brown said with a laugh. “But I took the position and ran with it. I
loved it. I was very apprehensive about it, but I loved it. It was an opportunity to be the face. I was constantly being asked to run with the lead on different issues or
problems. There were 13 legislators and they kept on voting for me to lead the compact negotiations or whatever issue at the time.”
The compacts were at the center of the Ho-Chunk’s ability to run their gaming operations. While they were a sovereign nation, they still needed to reach agreement
with the state of Wisconsin on the specifics of the gaming operations. They began negotiating a new compact with then Governor James Doyle.
“That compact was in perpetuity,” Brown said. “In exchange, there were these fees. If I’m remembering correctly, they were kind of generous fees, more than what
had been before. The fees were progressive. The first year, we would have paid 6-7 percent. After a couple of years, it might have jumped up to eight percent. That
legislature was willing to part with those fees for perpetuity. And I understood the concept. When that compact had been negotiated from afar, I recognized how
important it was for the perpetuity clause because the way that the compact had been structured previously, lenders wouldn’t take a serious look at it because of that
uncertainty. Will they be around? Will that compact be renegotiated? It’s too risky for us to provide for any significant level of loans. I thought that was a stroke of
genius that the legislature had negotiated that.”
While the governor had the authority to negotiate on behalf of the state, a majority in the state legislature didn’t like the compact and went to court to try to stop it. It
was either fight it out in court, a process that could take forever, or go back to the drawing boards to negotiate a new compact.
“The Ho-Chunk legislature said, ‘Fine, we’re going to withhold payment to the state,’” Brown recalled. “’That’s what we think about this. You guys are fighting amongst
yourselves. We have already voted on the compact. We’re going to withhold payment.’ That became, to me, a black eye. I didn’t like our nation being characterized
out there as being so defiant.’ I got elected into office and I’m learning a little bit more about the ins and outs. And I said, ‘You know, the only people getting rich in this
situation are the attorneys. Why don’t we go back to the state and talk to the governor. Let’s hammer out a new deal.’ The motion was made and it passed. There were
a series of meetings. Michael Morgan was the secretary of Administration at the time. He’s a good guy. He and Dan Shue and another legislator Elliot Garden and I
negotiated. We came up with what I think was a pretty darn good deal. I think at the end of the day, the fees were five percent. We adjust the fees, which was
significant. We were able to address the issue of perpetuity with a 25-year compact. Michael and I used to kid around. We called it a play-nice clause. Actually it’s a
50-year compact. Twenty-five years comes and goes. If at the end of 25 years, both parties play nice together, it will roll automatically into a 25 more years. For me, it
was perpetuity. I’ll be gone before that is over with. We thought that provision was beautiful. Then we were able to reduce fees and got the deal done. It was a major
victory for the Ho-Chunk Nation.”
While gaming is a big business generating millions in annual revenues, it is still a limited pool of money to meet the needs of the Ho-Chunk Nation. The Ho-Chunk are
a sovereign nation within the borders of the state of Wisconsin. As a sovereign nation, their government is charged with looking out after the general welfare of its
people. However unlike the state of Wisconsin, it can’t establish taxes and fees that will generate revenues that will allow it to meet those needs. When gaming was
made legal and was expanded, it was an opportunity for the Ho-Chunk to establish education, health and other programs and facilities for its people. While there is a
per capita payment to certified members of the tribe that doesn’t provide a ‘living wage,’ the vast majority of the profits from gaming go into tribal operations.
“When I operated the Wisconsin Dells facility, it was the flagship at the time,” Brown said. Madison is now. But at the time, the Dells was. Just seeing the annual
revenue we generated, I always felt really good. Going back to my Ball State days, I was looking for my niche. I was looking for where I fit in. Where can I make a
contribution that I am satisfied with? And so I see all of this revenue that we generate and I’m thinking that I am making my contribution in raising the standard of
living for my people. I felt good about that. We’re making oodles of money and I have to believe that leadership is doing a good job of managing our money and
allocating it appropriately to the different programs where we have needs for our people. So I get in the legislature and I discover we’re not meeting needs. Our
people are still suffering from alcoholism, drug abuse and homelessness. Our kids aren’t graduating at a rate that I see as acceptable. The kids aren’t being college
educated at a rate that I found acceptable. People were coming to the legislature continuously with a lot of issues. And I was wondering what we had done wrong.
Our population is growing. At the time, I believe it was about 5,000. Now we’re up to 7,800 now maybe closer to 8,000. Some people were discovering their Ho-
Chunk roots early on. I think now we’re just multiplying. That’s the genesis of that discovery we’re not filling the needs. It was disheartening. As a legislator, I was
thinking, ‘I know my job is to legislate, to create law. I get that. But what can we do as leadership to affect an increase in our tribal revenue.”
The opportunity came in the possibility of establishing a fourth gaming operation in Beloit. The Ho-Chunk had, in essence, license to run four gaming operations. They
had operations in Black River Falls, the Wisconsin Dells and Madison. They eyed a site in Beloit. There was one problem. The St. Croix and the Bad River Ojibwe
were already trying to establish a gaming operation in Beloit.
“There was some sort of legislation that passed that if St. Croix or Bad River weren’t able to fulfill their effort to establish gaming in Beloit, we would then be able to,”
Brown said. “The St. Croix and Bad River were pretty much at the end of their rope. They weren’t getting the traction they needed to get the land into trust. I think there
was an end date. Something triggered us. They had put down earnest money down on some land. There was the time to buy or back out. And we went in and bought it.
The strategy there was, this isn’t aboriginal to you to do anything. This is our territory. The strategy was to protect our market, so we brought it out from under them. It
was also an opportunity for us to pursue our fourth site in Beloit, which we have been doing since 2008 or 2009.”
There was only one problem with the Ho-Chunk plans. They still needed to get approval from the federal government.
“We’re still waiting on the federal government to place the land in trust for the purpose of gaming,” Brown said. “You can put the land in trust through the government
and the BIA and then there is the fundamental distinction of placing land in trust for the purpose of gaming. That’s the one that becomes hard and arduous and more
political and difficult. We’ve been at it actively since 2008. The BIA is just dragging its feet. That was an activity on the legislature for me putting this conversation in
context that I felt was extremely important.”
While he was still the executive manager of the Wisconsin Dells casino, the Ho-Chunk tried to establish a full-fledged casino in Madison. Governor Doyle said that the
people of Dane County would have to weigh in on the subject.
“Dane County held a referendum and we got crushed,” Brown said. “That was a lesson for me. At that time, I was just about terminated from my employment, but I
was still watching the news, still interested in what the Nation was going to do. And I saw these ads come up. And even then I was thinking, ‘Too little, too late. This
is not effective.’ My own tribal leadership was trying to tell the viewer what a great opportunity this was for the community. And I was thinking, ‘You’ve done
absolutely nothing as a tribe to get into this community and to help them understand you,’ so there wasn’t any meaningful messaging going on. I finished my term in
2011 and I came here. One of the first things that I did was try to understand what happened between the Ho-Chunk Nation and the city of Madison. What happened?
What can we do to repair that? I wanted to expand this facility. When I took over, it was slots. Paper had been taken out in 2005 and became a machine dominated
facility. It operated as a casino for my full term of office. I let the executive side do its thing. But on the legislature, I had oversight, but I wasn’t going to impose myself
onto them. They had a job to do, but I was still looking critically at what they did. I said that if I didn’t get reelected, I wanted this facility. I wanted to take it to a much
After Brown did not get re-elected to the Ho-Chunk legislature in 2011, he joined the management of Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison. In many ways, the casino, sitting on
land in the southeast corner of the I-90 and Hwy 12-18 interchange, was also separated from the city in other ways. It was operated outside of the flow of community
life and decision-making. It was disconnected from the broader community even though it depended on the broader community to grow and thrive.
“My former assistant manager at Wisconsin Dells got promoted to executive director of business, which is just underneath the president and over all of the casinos,”
Brown said. “So I am now her underling, which I was thrilled with. We were friends. When I got here, I was citing things that needed to get changed. And she had
developed relationships with folks here and some of the folks were not interested in me. I made the transition and she fired me. And so I am out of work for about
eight months. I was back eight months later on July 23, 2012. Now I was back to really take care of business and straighten this place out.”
Next issue: The modern Madison casino