HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — For the leaders of two Connecticut tribes proposing to build new casinos together, some of the toughest crowds to win over have been their own tribes, business rivals with a history of conflict that dates to a massacre nearly 400 years ago.
Building the alliance with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation has reminded Mohegan Tribe Chairman Kevin Brown, a retired U.S. Army colonel, of his work trying to bring together Muslim factions in Iraq.
"I spent a good portion of my life in Iraq trying to unite the Sunni and Shia tribal leaders," said Brown, a West Point graduate. "Now I'm doing it at home."
The Connecticut tribes, driven together by the threat of outside competition, have a lot of history to overcome. For two decades they have operated two of the world's largest casino resorts — Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods — only seven miles apart in southeastern Connecticut. And long before that there was the 1637 attack in which the Mohegans, allied with the English and another tribe, killed scores of elderly men, women and children in a raid on a Pequot village.
In a joint interview with The Associated Press, Brown and Pequot Chairman Rodney Butler described conversations they had over the last several months as they recognized a need for action, huddled with their tribal councils and met with lawmakers before the unveiling this month of legislation that would have them run as many as three new, small casinos.
A turning point came on Nov. 5, when Massachusetts voters cleared the way in a referendum for as many as three new casinos across the state line.
"We had to start moving forward because it was game on," Brown said. "Competition from Massachusetts became a definite reality."
The tribes had begun teaming up on some issues in recent years, holding joint talks with Connecticut's governor that led, for example, to a reduction in the presence of state police at the casinos to lower the amount they have to reimburse the state. But the dire forecasts for the effects of new competition on their flagship casinos called out for something bigger.
The idea of "satellite" casinos had been batted around before, and as Butler and Brown discussed their options, they agreed the timing was right.
"The stars were aligning," Butler said.
Some state lawmakers, meanwhile, were prodding the tribes to come ahead with a plan to address the threat from Massachusetts. The casinos are some of the region's biggest employers, and the tribes hold the cards in any expansion plan because they have exclusive gambling rights under the agreement that transfers 25 percent of slot-machine revenue to the state.
State Rep. Stephen Dargan said he and state Sen. Tim Larson, his fellow chairman on the Public Safety Committee, contacted the tribes more than a month ago out of concern for protecting jobs.
"We reached out to tribes and said, 'Hey, you guys aren't really helping the cause here. You guys need to reach out to the respective leadership of the four caucuses,'" Dargan said. "The tribes started doing that the past month or so to try and sell what that product is."
After a whirlwind three weeks, tribal leaders appeared at a news conference with lawmakers union leaders on March 10 to announce the new legislation. As the proposal makes its way through the General Assembly, Brown and Butler said they will be sorting out with their tribal councils how exactly the partnership might work.
"It doesn't come without its challenges for certain," Butler said. "There's some longstanding hard feelings that go back for centuries. People have a hard time letting some of those things go."