Battle over building a casino divides wealthy Fairfield County, Conn. Bridgeport vs. Greenwich; local Republicans split with GOP governor


HARTFORD, Conn. -- Trapped in the poor southeastern corner of Fairfield County, the people of Bridgeport are pinning their hopes for economic salvation on an unlikely ally. The predominantly Democratic city is counting on the new Republican governor, John G. Rowland, to win approval for a law to bring what could be the world's most profitable casino to Bridgeport.

To the west, the county's wealthy bedrock Republican towns are not at all pleased with the man they helped elect. Many prominent Republicans are fighting the casino proposal that Mr. Rowland, the state's first Republican governor in 20 years, has said is vital to Connecticut's prosperity.

"This would be an economic Chernobyl," State Sen. William H. Nickerson, a Greenwich Republican, said at a recent news conference. He said the $875 million casino proposed by the Mashantucket Pequot Indians would create traffic and other problems that would hurt the region's economy.

The rift over gambling comes as casinos have emerged as a divisive issue nationally for the party. In Connecticut, it pits the urban Republicanism of Mr. Rowland, who rose to power by appealing to conservative Democrats in the blue-collar city of Waterbury, against the affluent suburbanites who have been the Republican Party's backbone.

At stake for Mr. Rowland is the success of his plans for welfare reform and urban renewal: his plan to force more than 40,000 people off the dole. To undertake that program, which features a 29-month time limit on welfare, the country's strictest, Mr. Rowland needs jobs.

"You have to do more than just kick people off welfare," Paul Green, Mr. Rowland's spokesman, said. "Voting against the casino will very much undercut what we are trying to do in these other efforts. It will send a message, 'Drop dead, Bridgeport,' and we don't want that."

Mr. Nickerson and other anti-casino Republicans say that they ,, are following their conscience on gambling, as they would on issues like abortion or gun control.

But there are hints that the split may represent deeper differences about the state party's direction. While Mr. Rowland has strongly endorsed U.S. Sen. Bob Dole's bid for the presidency, Mr. Nickerson and two other top state Senate Republicans who oppose the casino had said they wanted to see if Colin L. Powell was going to run.

Issue in presidential race

In Washington, Sen. Richard G. Lugar, another presidential candidate, has used the rapid growth of the casino industry as an issue to attack Mr. Dole, who has received more than $500,000 in contributions from gaming interests. While Mr. Lugar has called on the Christian Coalition to oppose casinos' expansion on moral grounds, Mr. Dole has defended gaming as a legitimate industry.

There may be few places where anti-casino sentiment is stronger than lower Fairfield County, a Republican stronghold, once home to George Bush and still the home of William F. Buckley Jr. and the corporate headquarters for a host of Fortune 500 companies. In a survey that Mr. Nickerson conducted of his district, 72 percent were opposed to the Bridgeport proposal, in contrast to a statewide poll that showed a slight majority favoring it.

Some of the anti-casino feelings are based on principle. "It's immoral," said Charles P. Stetson, a Republican from the town of Fairfield and chairman of the Family Institute of Connecticut, a group affiliated with the national evangelical group Focus on the Family. "I thought the Republican Party was the party of responsibility, but I'm beginning to wonder."

But perhaps more important to the anti-casino movement are the fears about its impact on quality of life.

"It would turn I-95 into a parking lot," said Chris Bruhl, chief executive of the Southwestern Area Commerce and Industry Association, a Fairfield business group. Already the highway is operating at 165 percent of intended capacity, traffic is routinely slowed to a crawl during rush hours and the 19-mile trip from Fairfield to Stamford can take more than an hour.

'Desperate about traffic'

The thousands of new visitors to a casino would create insurmountable gridlock, Mr. Bruhl said, quelling the economic growth in the county, particularly in Stamford.

He added: "They're feeling desperate in Bridgeport now, and desperate people are willing to take gambles. But please don't underestimate how desperate we feel about traffic."

Tom Ragland, First Selectman-elect of Greenwich, said recently that people in his town were not open to changing their commuting habits: "You've got a Beamer in one driveway and a Mercedes in another, you're not going to grab a bus. You've earned a place in this world and carved out a life style."

The opposition goes beyond such concerns. Mr. Nickerson has argued that casinos take money from other industries, cause a net loss in jobs and are bad public policy. While casino supporters tout the 10,000 jobs the Pequots created with their Foxwoods Resort Casino in eastern Connecticut, Mr. Nickerson has pointed to poverty and crime in Atlantic City as proof that casinos do not help urban development.

The legislature is holding a special session to consider the issue. The outcome is in doubt.

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