The Senate voted Wednesday to legalize mixed-martial arts in Connecticut, ending its role as a proxy in a long-running fight between organized labor and non-union Las Vegas casino owners with a major stake in the popular sport.
On the last day of the session, Senate Democratic leaders had to choose between carrying the cudgel for the AFL-CIO or helping a freshman Democrat desperate to bring more business to a hometown arena.
They chose the freshman, Sen. Andres Ayala of Bridgeport, who described mixed-martial arts as a source of needed events for the Webster Bank Arena in his city and the XL Center in Hartford.
“That’s exactly right,” said Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, acknowledging the simple political calculus in deciding to allow a vote on a bill long-bottled up by leadership.
Ayala was backed by other urban Democrats in the legislature, as well as Mayor Bill Finch of Bridgeport. It was a combination that proved more persuasive than organized labor.
So Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, who controls the agenda, allowed the bill to come to a vote. It passed 26-9, with Williams and Looney among those voting no.
Looney, who is known for his encyclopedic knowledge of legislative history and trivia, only smiled when asked to name the last time legislation opposed by the two leaders was passed by the Senate.
In a brief debate, senators argued over the appeal and appropriateness of the bloody fighting matches, now a staple of cable television and a popular draw everywhere but Connecticut and New York, the only two states that ban the sport.
Six of the nine senators to oppose legalization were women.
“This is a brutal sport, and I also think it speaks to a culture of violence,” said Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, an early-childhood education specialist.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said he is no fan of the sport, but it already was in Connecticut at the two tribal casinos, which are run by sovereign tribes outside state law.
Ayala said legalization means jobs and economic activity in Hartford and Bridgeport.
“They can’t wait for this to happen. It’s a good result for our cities,” Ayala said.
The biggest promoter in mixed martial arts is “Ultimate Fighting Championship.” Its owners, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, have a significant stake in Station Casinos, one of the few non-unionized casino chains in Las Vegas. They have been trying for three years to get access to the Connecticut market.
“We look forward to Gov. Dan Malloy signing the bill into law and making Connecticut the 49th state to legalize MMA. And we look forward to bringing the UFC to our Connecticut fans,” said Lorenzo Fertitta, the chairman and chief executive officer of UFC.
Lori Pelletier, the secretary-treasurer of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, who watched from the Senate gallery, said the legislation rewards a bad corporate citizen.
“It’s disappointing,” she said. But Pelletier said she understood the dynamic within the Senate Democratic caucus that prompted Williams and Looney to give Ayala a vote on his bill. “I totally get it.”