1995 Bridgeport casino players: Two went to jail and one to the White House
To understand the dynamics of the way MGM Resorts International is using a bid for a casino in Bridgeport as a smoky decoy, you need to look no further than the failed 1995 bid to build one there.
The Vegas-based gambling empire is now hoping to distract attention from what legislators in Connecticut should be looking at during their upcoming session: fixing the casino legislation they passed last session, a law, gummed up by aggressive MGM lobbying in Washington, that would create a tribal casino in East Windsor.
MGM, which is trying to protect its new Springfield, Mass., casino from one in northern Connecticut, has no real interest in Bridgeport.
They told investors as much recently, saying Springfield would be their last casino in the United States.
It’s not like they don’t know how impossible it would be to get approval for one in Bridgeport.
Indeed, the 1995 attempt to build a casino on the Bridgeport waterfront ended in a rout, with the Connecticut Senate voting down the plan 24 to 10.
The idea was incredibly unpopular in Fairfield County, everywhere outside Bridgeport. Even today’s governor, Dannel Malloy, then mayor of Stamford, was against it. Attorney General George Jepsen, then a state senator representing Darien and Stamford, was against it, too.
People who live in the perpetual traffic gridlock that is Fairfield County want nothing to do with anything that is going to bring more people and traffic. A casino is also not the kind of cultural landmark most people in that part of the state would welcome.
That is still the toxic political environment for anyone proposing a casino in Bridgeport today. The logistical problem, too, of voiding the tribal/state agreement that provides hundreds of millions from reservation slot machines, still exists today.
Maybe most important, the business prospects for a Bridgeport casino are much worse today, given the opening of a second casino in Connecticut and many more in Pennsylvania and New York in the decades since.
A Fairfield County casino hardly would be the home run it seemed like it could be in 1995, with nearby New Yorkers then starved of other options outside Atlantic City.
It was fear for his Atlantic City casinos that first brought Donald Trump to the Bridgeport table in the 1990s, hooking up with then Mayor Joe Ganim as his local political muscle, as he proposed a theme park that might morph into a casino.
Then Gov. John Rowland was also a big proponent of building a casino in Bridgeport. The winners were the Mashantucket Pequots, who beat out Steve Wynn, then heading Vegas-based Mirage Resorts, as the state-chosen prospective developer.
A look at where they all are today provides a little more explanation about why the Fairfield County establishment did not then, and would not now, welcome a casino.
After all, the two politicians most associated with the Bridgeport casino planning, Rowland and Ganim, later went to jail for taking favors.
And Wynn, a titan of Las Vegas and one of the principal bidders in Bridgeport in 1995, is now starring in a raging national scandal, accused of years of sexual harassment and assault.
I know we have gotten kind of inured to the notion of casinos linked to crime and sleaze, but it is hard to think of staid old Connecticut agreeing to put a casino in a city now run by a mayor convicted of racketeering, extortion, bribery and mail fraud, after shaking down city contractors.
President Donald Trump, then a pal of Mayor Ganim’s, is now friendly with his old casino competitor, Wynn, and fending off his own sex scandal, reports that he paid hush money to quiet a porn star about their alleged affair.
Trump, or at least his spirit, also still may be hovering over the casino debate in Connecticut.
MGM, in muddying the approval in Washington required by last year’s Connecticut legislation authorizing an East Windsor casino, hired Trump-affiliated lobbyists to lobby the Trump administration.
So far, that MGM attack on Connecticut is sticking. The tribes have had to go to court to get a bureaucratic assent from the Bureau of Indian Affairs that should have been simple and routine.
Turns out the swamp in Washington is alive and well and now full of greedy Trump lobbyists.
Connecticut lawmakers need to look past the diversion of a new Bridgeport carnival and reclaim their own gambling legislation, to create a northern Connecticut casino to compete against MGM in Springfield.
What they need to do is work with the tribes to provide a guarantee that their East Windsor casino won’t threaten the state’s share of reservation slot machine revenues, and leave the lobby-prone Washington bureaucrats out of it.
This is the opinion of David Collins.