Connecticut casinos inspire writer’s book of fiction

By Christian Mysliwiec
Manchester - posted Tue., Apr. 2, 2013
Robert Steele signs copies of his novel about Connecticut casinos entitled, "The Curse: Big-Time Gambling's Seduction of a Small New England Town," at Mary Cheney Library in Manchester. Photos by Christian Mysliwiec.
Robert Steele signs copies of his novel about Connecticut casinos entitled, "The Curse: Big-Time Gambling's Seduction of a Small New England Town," at Mary Cheney Library in Manchester. Photos by Christian Mysliwiec.

For better or for worse, the two casinos in the state of Connecticut are a major part of the history of the state and of New England as a whole. While several nonfiction books have examined the phenomenal success of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, one Connecticut native and a former Connecticut congressman, Robert Steele, was inspired to use the gambling explosion that drastically altered southeastern Connecticut during the 1990s as the backdrop for a fictional novel.

On Monday, March 25, Steele discussed his book, “The Curse: Big-Time Gambling's Seduction of a Small New England Town,” at Mary Cheney Library.

As a congressman, Steele represented most of eastern Connecticut from 1970 to 1974. After his term, he ran for governor, but was defeated by Ella Grasso. “After that election, my family and I moved from Vernon, where we had lived for 18 years, down to Ledyard,” Steele said. “And we lived, for the next 21 years, literally on the edge of the Mashantucket-Pequot Reservation.”

The dual experiences of representing the people of eastern Connecticut and watching – up close and first-hand – the rise of the two Connecticut casinos inspired him to write his book. Steele gave the audience a presentation on the historical background of legalized gambling in Connecticut, which lead to the rise of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.

In 1973, the last person living on the Mashantucket-Pequot Reservation, Eliza George, passed away. The state could have taken back the land and discontinued the tribe as a state-recognized tribe, but neglected to do so. Two years later, an active Indian Affairs attorney found the grandchildren of George, and persuaded them to resurrect the tribe and apply for federal recognition. This would put them in the lucrative position of being able to hold high-stakes Bingo.

While the tribe did not meet the Bureau of Indian Affair's criteria for recognition, the attorney took a circuitous route securing recognition through Congress. This proved successful – he even gained enough support to override President Ronald Reagan's initial veto. This caused the president to concede, and the tribe gained formal recognition.

In 1988 Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. “It's fair to say that when Congress passed the act, they had no idea of the Pandora's box that was about to open,” Steele said. The act allowed Indian tribes to open casinos on their reservations. It opened the door to not only Indian casinos across the nation, but commercial ones as well. Today, Steele said, there about 1,000 casinos in America, nearly evenly split between Indian and commercial.

Following the act, the Mashantucket-Pequots opened Foxwoods in 1992, and the Mohegan tribe in Montville opened Mohegan Sun in 1996. “Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun were the first two casinos on the East Coast, except for in Atlantic City, and with no other competition around, they quickly grew to be the two biggest casinos in the world,” said Steele. “Foxwoods alone is over 6 million square feet. It is bigger than the Pentagon.”

Both created 20,000 casino jobs at their height, sending hundreds of millions of dollars in slot revenues to the Connecticut treasury. “It's an incredible story,” said Steele. “But the story, if you just look at the newspaper every week, is clearly not over.”

According to Steele, the presence of the two casinos has a significant downside. “Their presence has created an increasingly pervasive gambling culture in southeastern Connecticut. They've skewed the region's economy toward low-paying service jobs. They're resulted in a sharp spike in the number of pathological gamblers,” Steele said. “One of the most remarkable findings of a 2009 study that the state of Connecticut sponsored was that there had been a 400 percent increase in the number of arrests for embezzlement in Connecticut since Foxwoods' opening in 1992.”

Many casino opponents say that the economic cost of casinos to the region greatly outweighs their benefits. Among those most vulnerable are the poor. “Opponents say that casinos constitute a regressive tax on low-income people who can afford to lose money the least,” said Steele.

With casinos expected to be constructed in many neighboring states and discussion underway to make it legal for a casino to host Internet gambling, it is clear that the story is far from over.

With such fascinating source material, Steele had a unique opportunity to explore the subject through fiction. “The entire remarkable, ongoing story of casinos in Connecticut is enough to want to write a book,” he said.

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