SOUTHPORT, Conn. - Something snaps inside U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R.-Conn., when he talks about Indians.
The mild-mannered, white-haired gentleman who is one of the state's most respected politicians becomes a firebrand advocating something close to civil disobedience directed against sovereign reservations.
At a March 4 forum sponsored by a group fighting Indian casinos, Shays told the well-dressed audience, mainly of late middle age, that he would support blocking the roads to any reservation that tried to sell untaxed gasoline and cigarettes.
"Let the U.S. sue me," he said.
His stance reflected the deep-seated antagonism between some of the state's elected officials and the tribes, which has come to a boil with the federal acknowledgment of two state-recognized tribes. The state is already appealing the BIA's June 2002 positive finding on the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation and is preparing a challenge to the Jan. 29 acknowledgement of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation. The Schaghticoke decision energized a group called the Connecticut Alliance Against Casino Expansion, led by the anti-Pequot writer Jeff Benedict. Shays spoke at one of its series of "town meetings," along with state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.
The meeting drew about 75 to the town's Victorian era white-stone Pequot Library, located almost of top of the site of the Great Swamp Fight of 1637, in which English settlers ended the Pequot War with a massacre of fleeing tribal members. The town, ironically, is also headquarters of David A. Rosow Associates, the financial backers for the Eastern Pequots.
Blumenthal warned the group, "There is more than a casino at stake." He warned that tribal sovereignty would create an entity not subject to state or local environmental, labor or zoning laws. In a clue to the roots of the state's anti-tribal passions, he recalled the series of land claim suits that Bridgeport's Golden Hill Paugussett tribe had filed over a decade earlier against private landowners in a ring of affluent suburbs.
Blumenthal also took note of a recent series of press interviews given by the primary Schaghticoke financial backer Frederick A. DeLuca, founder of the Subway chain of sandwich shops. DeLuca opened his first Subway in the decaying industrial port of Bridgeport, one of the state's largest and most impoverished cities, and he told the press he would like to open a casino and convention center to contribute to its revival. Unlike the suburbanites, the inner city residents seem to be pinning great hopes on the development.
Blumenthal replied that what he saw as a negative impact on surrounding towns would more than balance the new jobs in the city center, primarily because of a potential flood of traffic that would overwhelm the already severely strained Interstate Highway 95. In a theme echoed by some of the affluent audience, he said the state would have to offer Bridgeport alternative hopes for economic revival.
He repeated his promise to stall any new casino for years by appealing the BIA recognitions in every available venue.
Shays initially supported a reservation blockade in answering an audience member who suggested "another course" of action against the tribes, beyond the current flood of state-sponsored lawsuits. But he affirmed his position in a chat after the meeting and in response to a question from Indian Country Today. He modified it only by saying a blockade should come only if a tribe acted first in offering untaxed sales.
Both of the state's federally recognized tribes currently collect the full range of sales taxes, and that situation is unlikely to change since it is built into their recognition legislation. Arthur Henick, spokesman for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, said, "We collect and remit all pertinent state and federal taxes, as covered in the compact." The Mohegan tribe operates a large Mobil gas station and convenience store on the highway extension leading from its Mohegan Sun casino, but by agreement with the state its gasoline prices are substantially higher than any in the region.
The state-recognized Golden Hill Paugussett tribe tried to open a tax-free smoke shop on its four-acre reservation in Colchester in 1992, but the shop was quickly shut down by Connecticut State Police.
The Alliance also supports placing tollbooths on the roads to the two southeastern Connecticut tribal casinos, an idea that was almost literally laughed out of the state legislature last year. Committee chairmen refused to discuss the tollbooth bill, calling it a clear violation of the federal constitution.
Other rhetoric at the meeting was likewise detached from practical impact. Benedict maintained that the biggest triumph for the Alliance in its first year and a half of operation was the state legislature's repeal of a "Las Vegas Nights" law allowing state charities to offer games of chance at fund-raisers. He claimed that the statute was the loophole allowing Indian tribes to operate casinos in the state. The repeal, he said, would prevent newly recognized tribes from following suit, or at least force them into a protracted court battle.
This position has been roundly disputed by gaming law experts, who call it a profound misreading of the U.S. Supreme Court's Cabazon decision. But beyond that achievement, Benedict and Shays confessed to some frustration.
Benedict called his work a "lonely road" and bemoaned the lack of support outside the state. He said he hoped eventually to build up a network with anti-casino groups in Massachusetts and New York state. Benedict and other Connecticut anti-casino figures have made speaking tours in California, however. The Connecticut Alliance Web site offers a link to the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance, a Montana-based coalition fighting tribal sovereignty.
"We from the East have very little influence," Shays said about the Congressional committees dealing with Indian affairs. He said that western Congressmen failed to understand the impact of the Connecticut casinos since tribal casinos in their region were much smaller and more isolated. He also said that western tribes had far more clout.
"The tribes out west have thousands of voters," he told the meeting. "They can promise they will vote as a bloc. They're a political force."
Shays did say, however, that he had some power as a ranking member of the House Government Operations Committee. He said the committee chairman had promised to hold a hearing on the alleged influence of lobbyists and tribal financial backers on the BIA's recognition process. He said the hearing was presently scheduled for late May, on the last day of the legislative session.