Mashantucket – The economic and political clout of the state’s two tribal casinos was amply demonstrated Wednesday by the sight of Connecticut’s top officials on a casino stage to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Foxwoods Resort Casino.
The distant, soft singing of slot machines could be heard faintly inside the darkened Fox Theater as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy stepped to a spot-lit microphone and said, “We are in this together.”
Where his predecessors kept their distance, Malloy has embraced the Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegans, whose two massive tribal casinos have produced nearly $6 billion in slots revenue for the state under a deal cut by Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr.
Malloy shared a stage with Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, Comptroller Kevin Lembo and Attorney General George Jepsen. Treasurer Denise Nappier was the only statewide constitutional officer missing.
In an interview, the governor later said the turnout of top state officials, plus state legislators and local officials who sat in the theater’s VIP section, signified that official Connecticut is long past any queasiness over the gambling business.
“It represents a very significant change in direction and relationship between ourselves and the two operators of these casinos, these two separate tribal nations,” Malloy said. “We’re facing a lot of competition. It’s time to come together.”
Malloy has established a closer relationship with the Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegans, launching joint marketing campaigns aimed at solidifying the casinos’ customer base as Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York build competing casinos.
“I was astounded my predecessors had a very standoffish relationship with two of the largest employers,” Malloy said. “Put together, they are the second-largest employer, other than state government.”
United Technologies Corp., the conglomerate whose holdings include Pratt & Whitney, Sikorsky, Hamilton Sundstrand, Carrier and Otis Elevator, is the only larger private employer.
“For the life of me, I couldn’t understand what was going on here,” Malloy said. “It’s bizarre. They are engaged in perfectly legal behavior.”
It was 20 years ago that the Pequots opened a 46,000-square-foot casino with 170 table games, taking advantage of a Supreme Court decision permitting tribal nations to offer any form of gambling allowed by state government.
The legal opening allowing the casino was that Connecticut law at the time allowed charitable “Las Vegas nights.”
After Weicker failed to persuade the legislature to stop Foxwoods by repealing charitable gambling, he signed an agreement giving the Pequots exclusive rights to slots in return for a hefty 25 percent cut of the gross.
The slots deal had two effects: It effectively stymied non-tribal gaming interests, who had been seeking legislative approval to open casinos in Bridgeport and Hartford, and it created an incomprehensible flow of cash.
Since 1993, the Pequots have paid Connecticut nearly $3.3 billion. The Mohegans, who opened Mohegan Sun five years later, have paid the state $2.7 billion in slots revenue.
Foxwoods and Mohegan now each have more than 6,000 slots.
On Wednesday, the celebration mixed elements of solemn tribal chanting and marketing. In the audience were some of the 500 employees who have been with Foxwoods for all 20 years.
On a stage where comedian Colin Quinn performs Saturday night, the tribal council and state constitutional officers sat in colorful, upholstered easy chairs against a black backdrop dotted with faux stars and criss-crossed with blue beams of light. Stage left was a massive cake and columns of balloons.
Rodney Butler, the Pequots’ tribal chairman, said it is hard to believe that a small tribe on the verge of extinction now owns a 6.7-million-square-foot resort with two hotels, six casinos, an arena and theater complex.
The Mohegans are hoping to profit from the region’s expansion of gambling by trying to open a casino in Massachusetts. The Pequots are not.
“Being competitive with ourselves, we don’t think is all that beneficial,” Butler said.
Instead, the tribe is planning to expand its resort with a 300,000-square-foot shopping complex this spring.
Malloy told the tribe and its council the state will help it compete.
“I pledge to you that we’ll be an active partner, treating this wonderful organization, this council and the member of this nation with the respect that they so richly deserve,” Malloy said.
He stepped away from the microphone and exchanged hugs and handshakes with each member of the tribal council.