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GOP lets loose at convention

May 12, 2018 GMT

MASHANTUCKET — What happens in Foxwoods probably won’t stay in Foxwoods.

After months of buttoned-up campaigning, thousands of Republican delegates, candidates and guests descended on the Foxwoods Resort Casino Friday for a weekend of vice-enhanced fraternizing. Oh, and the Republican nominating convention.

The convention opened at 3 p.m., and by 4 p.m. it wasn’t difficult to spot convention-goers sporting their signature red lanyards and holding adult beverages in hand, shopping at the outlet stores or scoping out the slot machines.

Candidates had already invited delegates into private suites with open bars, and many guests were quick to take full advantage of the diversions the resort has to offer. After all, what is a convention at a casino, if you can’t have a little fun.

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“We’re just supporting the local economy,” said state Sen. Eric Berthel, a superdelegate from Watertown, who had stopped by governor candidate Mike Handler’s campaign-sponsored party at the Red Lantern bar and restaurant inside Foxwoods. With drink in hand, Berthel was making the rounds, socializing and getting to know the candidates.

“This is an amazing entertainment venue,” Berthel said. “We hope our delegates will have a great time, but this is also an important part of the political process.”

Under trendy dim-lighting of an Asian-fusion boîte, delegates and guests like Berthel were enjoying the opportunity to get to know a candidate outside the stuffy, structured settings of Republican Town Committee meetings or party-organized debates. The chance to share a drink and let loose a little provides a more personal experience, one delegate said.

“This allows one-on-one interaction and the chance to ask very specific questions,” said Jeff Thomen, Rocky Hill RTC chairman and a delegate. “This is our fun part. This is our opportunity as a voter to interact with the top of the ticket and really get to know them.”

Thomen’s wife, who attended the convention as a guest, had already done some shopping and was enjoying drinks alongside her husband.

Tracey Karl, of New Canaan, was only drinking Diet Coke, but the broad smile on her face said she was having a blast supporting her husband — the treasurer for Handler’s campaign and a delegate from New Canaan. She had already made new friends.

“We have so much in common,” she said, gesturing to a group of women seated at the bar.

Just downstairs at Alta Strada, an Italian restaurant, Sheryl Decilio and Katrina Henrick, both of Stratford, were treating themselves to dinner and drinks while their husbands — both delegates — participated in the U.S. Senate nominating session. Easily identified by their red lanyards, their name badges both read “guest.”

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“We’ve played bingo, and did some gambling,” Henrick said. “We’re both on the ‘alternate’ list so all of the stuff we will participate in starts later.”

While the opportunity to treat themselves on Mother’s Day weekend was certainly a perk, both Henrick and Decilio said they particularly enjoyed getting to see the convention process and gain a better understanding of how it works.

“We’re just bystanders, but it’s just a cool process,” Decilio said. “It’s amazing and it’s nice to see all of the Republicans really have the same agenda. It’s been a hard eight years for us, as Republicans, and it’s great to see a unified party.”

By 7:30 p.m., the party was just getting started at Foxwoods though. Candidates such as Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton had parties for delegates scheduled late into the night, with most not expected to start until after 9 p.m.

The convention’s nearly 1,200 delegates are the most popular people at the party, as candidates are still vying for their support. In the governor’s race, where 11 candidates still remain, Handler was taking the opportunity to speak with delegates.

After months of visiting town committees, Handler said it was nice to interact with delegates in a more personal setting.

“I can be talking to someone in an empty room or a packed meeting or at the Foxwoods Casino and my message is going to be the same,” Handler said. “But this has been great.”

kkrasselt@hearstmediact.com; 203-842-2563; @kaitlynkrasselt