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Kenny Reels says he's heeding tribal members' call in council run

Mashantucket - After 18 years on the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Council, including four as chairman, Kenny Reels figured his council days were over when he lost a re-election bid in November 2008.

He said at the time that he'd had enough.

But he's always done what the tribe has asked him to do. And as another election drew near, tribal members began asking him to run for the council.

"People kept asking me," the ever-affable Reels said in an interview last week. "Some business people in the region, too, and state and federal politicians."

Reels, heeding the calls, joined a field of a dozen candidates vying for the two seats up for election Nov. 6 on the seven-member council. After the top two vote-getters fill the seats, the tribal membership will vote again to choose a vice chairman.

"I think I've had a good break," Reels said. "I refreshed myself."

A charismatic leader as a council chairman and vice chairman, the 51-year-old Reels believes he could be a savvy, steadying influence on the council. Relationships he forged over the years with state and federal politicians could prove invaluable, he said.

"The tribe needs to show some stability, and that's what I bring," he said. "We don't have time for a learning curve."

Reels, who serves as vice chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Gaming Commission, had left the tribal council by the time the tribe's financial crisis came to light in the summer of 2009. If he had been on the council, he said, he would not have supported its ouster of Chairman Michael Thomas, who also is seeking to return to the council.

"I would not have voted to remove him," Reels said. "It was so close to the (November 2009) election. In a couple of months, the people would have made the decision" whether to re-elect Thomas.

Reels said he disagreed with Thomas' promise to put stipends for tribal members ahead of payments to the tribe's lenders, but said he favors continuing the stipends in some form.

"I feel like you always pay your debt first - then take care of your people," he said.

Reels pointed out that when he became chairman in 1999, Foxwoods' gaming revenues were at their peak. Interest rates, he said, were low.

"At the time, the tribe was $1 billion in debt," he said. "At the end of my tenure in 2002, we had brought it close to $750 million."

By mid-2009, two years after MGM Grand at Foxwoods opened, the debt was approaching $2.3 billion. That, coupled with revenue declines brought on by a recession and growing competition, spelled inevitable default.

"Nobody saw the market crashing like it did," Reels said. "We wouldn't have been able to borrow the money if they did."

Reels said he supported the MGM Grand project at the time and maintains that the Foxwoods complex could still use more hotel rooms today.

"We make all our money from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon," he said. "We have to have hotel rooms so people can stay. During the week, you've got to get the meeting business."

Reels said it will be hard for the tribe to move forward until its debt-restructuring — what he calls "the forbearance" - is resolved. Only then, he said, will it be possible to plan intelligently for the future.

In the meantime, he said, "The biggest thing we can do is serve our patrons. If we lose market share, if patrons don't come back, it's because of the service.

"We've got to get this engine running again."


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