Casinos happy to host political parties, candidates

When Lee Elci decided to have a debate among the Republican candidates for governor, he thought about where to stage it.

Mohegan Sun came to mind — more or less immediately.

A couple of other venues in the region warranted brief consideration, but for Elci, the 94.9 News Now talk show host, the casino that’s been the site of the radio station’s last five birthday parties — a sixth is scheduled there next month — more than met the necessary parameters.

Mohegan Sun’s 400-seat Cabaret Theatre is just the right size, Elci said, and “they’ve got a great staff.”

No one connected with the upcoming event — neither Elci’s superiors at the radio station, nor casino officials, nor the five GOP gubernatorial candidates' campaigns — had any reservations about the location — evidence, it seems, that southeastern Connecticut’s casinos and the Native American tribes that own them are perceived as nonpartisan, if not quite apolitical.

All of the candidates — Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, the GOP-endorsed candidate; Tim Herbst, a former Trumbull first selectman; Steve Obsitnik, a Westport entrepreneur and former Navy submariner; Bob Stefanowksi, a former business executive who lives in Madison; and David Stemerman, a former Greenwich hedge fund manager — agreed to participate in the debate, set for 6 p.m. next Thursday at Mohegan Sun.

“I expected somebody (among the candidates) to mention it,” Elci said of the choice of venue. “Some of these guys are a little older and I know that just because I accept casinos, not everybody does. But no one raised an eyebrow. ... No one thinks of a casino anymore as just a place to gamble, but as a place to do stuff.”

“It wasn’t like that in the beginning,” he said.

Mitchell Etess, the former Mohegan Sun chief executive who now serves as senior adviser to the Mohegan Tribe, said the time when casinos’ association with gambling left them outside society’s mainstream has long since passed.

“We host high school basketball championships,” said Etess, a weekly guest on Elci's radio show. “In spite of being casinos, we’re public places. Hosting something like this (the debate) is more of a commercial activity. I don’t think people look at these things as partisan-type events.”

Generally, he said, displaying a political preference is a bad idea.

“If you’re in the business of hosting events, you have to be an equal opportunity event-hoster,” Etess said.

Both of the casino-owning tribes, the Mohegans and the Mashantucket Pequots, regularly pursue their interests with, and make contributions to, state lawmakers and parties of all political stripes. In recent years, Republicans and Democrats alike have supported the tribes’ efforts to develop a commercial casino in East Windsor to fend off out-of-state competition.

“If I were to come to Mohegan Sun next week and say I wanted to have a Democratic debate, they’d say OK,” Elci said. “I’d be shocked if it (the party) made any difference.”

The Connecticut Republican Party, which has not been involved with next week’s Elci-arranged debate, has demonstrated its willingness to schedule nominating conventions at the casinos. In May, it held its two-day 2018 convention at Foxwoods Resort Casino. Four years earlier, it convened at Mohegan Sun.

J.R. Romano, the state GOP chairman, said the party chose Foxwoods this year after requesting proposals from all venues in the state with the necessary capacity. Foxwoods, he said, won the bid.

“For what we need, there’s the casinos and the Connecticut Convention Center (in Hartford) and not much else,” Romano said. “You’ve got concert venues that are too big, too expensive. We need something that can accommodate 3,000 people.”

Debates, which typically require far less space than conventions do, often are held in high school auditoriums.

Romano said the party’s association with casinos is noncontroversial.

“It may have been at the beginning (the casinos opened in the 1990s), but the truth is right now the state of Connecticut is contemplating expanding gambling and legalizing marijuana, it’s so desperate for money ...,” Romano said. “Nobody cares you’re at a casino.”

Connecticut Democrats have held their recent conventions, including this year’s, at the Connecticut Convention Center.

Christina Polizzi, the party’s communications director, said that to her knowledge the Democrats have never had a convention at one of the casinos. “But we would certainly consider them in the future,” she added.

Elci, who will moderate the upcoming GOP debate, said he plans to give each of the five candidates 12 minutes they can use at their own discretion.

“My idea is not to inject myself into it,” he said. “If they want to go crazy on guns, they can, or the Hartford bankruptcy, or whatever.”

Where they stand on casino expansion in the state could come up, too, Elci said.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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