Tribal member thrives as Senate staffer

Robert Casanova
Robert Casanova

As a member of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, Robert Casanova might have been expected to explore a career in the hospitality industry, which he has done.

Few, however, could have foreseen his current job: aide to a U.S. senator.

Until the 30-year-old Casanova joined Sen. Richard Blumenthal's staff last summer, no member of the tribe that owns Foxwoods Resort Casino had ever held such a post.

"It's not only a great honor, but an opportunity to strengthen the relationship between my tribe and Connecticut," Casanova said last week in a phone interview from Washington.

Casanova was born in the Bronx and moved to the Mashantucket reservation with his mother, Willow Casanova-Colebut, and his three sisters when he was 12. He graduated from the Westminster School in Simsbury in 2001, then studied Spanish in Spain and briefly attended Northeastern University in Boston.

Later, he enrolled at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., a little-known school that raised its profile last fall by hosting the final presidential debate.

While pursuing a degree in hospitality, Casanova studied in China, where he had an internship at the Okura Garden Hotel during Expo 2010, an international event that took place in Shanghai. Surrounded by Chinese co-workers, Casanova was the only foreigner to work the hotel's front desk.

"It was a great year to be in Shanghai," he recalled. "There were so many western guests from all over the world. … I got to practice my Mandarin every day."

In the back of his mind, Casanova, who graduated from Lynn last spring, had envisioned working in an international community, particularly among Asians, who represent a large part of Foxwoods' demographic.

"Working at Foxwoods was an opportunity for me, but I decided I could do more for the tribe in other ways," he said. "That's when I was told about the opportunity to work for Senator Blumenthal."

The news came from Casanova's sister, Angelina Casanova-Bell, who manages legislative affairs for the tribe. Casanova's aunt, Marjorie Colebut-Jackson, is the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Council's secretary.

Blumenthal had reached out to the Mashantuckets, a tribe with which he sometimes was at odds during his tenure as state attorney general. In the 1990s, for example, he sided with the towns of Ledyard, North Stonington and Preston in opposing the tribe's plan to annex land adjacent to its reservation. After years of litigation, the tribe abandoned the plan.

"We were occasionally on different sides, but often on the same side," Blumenthal, a Democrat elected to the Senate in 2010, said of his relationship with the tribe.

"My staff and I tell a variety of groups that we're interested in hiring the best possible staff," he said. "I told the tribal nation that we would welcome applications from their group."

Blumenthal said he was impressed with Casanova's qualifications, especially his experience.

"He's very good in speaking to people and responding to their concerns," the senator said. "He's level-headed, even-tempered, smart and insightful."

Casanova said he "jumped all over" the chance to join Blumenthal's staff.

"I thought it would be a great opportunity to expand on my experience, a great opportunity to represent my tribe," he said.

Casanova noted Blumenthal's support for reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which targets domestic and sexual abuse.

"It's an issue close to my heart, knowing how prevalent it is on reservations across the country," Casanova said. "(Blumenthal's) involvement interested me."

As a staff assistant, Casanova fields phone calls and mail from Blumenthal's constituents. The traffic tends to reflect the issues in the media at any given time, Casanova said, and in most cases he can explain where the senator stands. If not, he transfers the constituent to a more senior staff member.

"I enjoy it a lot," he said of the work. "My background in hospitality was good training. Dealing with constituents is not too different from dealing with guests wanting information about hotel amenities. To me, it's all service work, whether it's public or private."

Bitten by the diplomacy bug, Casanova now envisions a future career as a Foreign Service officer, preferably at a consulate somewhere in Asia.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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