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Pequot Leadership To Change: Reels Won't Seek Re-Election As Mashantuckets' Chairman

By Rick Green, The Hartford Courant, 11 October 2002

With his tribe and casino facing both new threats and fresh opportunity, Mashantucket Pequot Chairman Kenneth M. Reels said Thursday he would step aside for a younger leader.

It is time to empower younger leadership to take our tribe to the next level of determination, with the guidance and assistance of the body of the Tribal Council and membership, Reels, 42, said in a statement released by the tribe, which owns Foxwoods Resort Casino.

Reels, who will seek re-election to the tribal council but not as tribal chairman, appears to be making way for Michael J. Thomas, a tribal council member. Thomas, 34, and tribal Vice Chairman Richard A. Skip Hayward, 54, whose council seats are not up for election, reportedly both are seeking the chairman's job.

As many as 12 candidates are running for two council seats in the Nov. 2 election. Tribal members will select council members and vote for the chairman in the election.

After 10 years of stunning growth, the tribe faces new competition from the rival Mohegan Tribe, which owns Mohegan Sun, and other state tribes seeking federal recognition and the accompanying right to open a casino. At the same time, anti-gambling sentiment across Connecticut appears to be growing louder, with even Gov. John G. Rowland now saying he opposes any casino expansion.

Thomas, the council's treasurer, has taken an increasingly active leadership role in the 700-member tribe. This year, he was chairman of the Pow-wow committee, which oversees Schemitzun, the tribe's annual festival. Hayward - the tribe's former chairman who engineered federal recognition of the tribe, the opening of Foxwoods and who led it for more than two decades until Reels ousted him in 1998 - rarely appears in public.

Thomas and Hayward did not immediately return calls requesting comment. Reels could not be reached Thursday to expand on his announcement.

In a democracy we take time to listen and respect different opinions, Reels said in his prepared statement. Our tribe must always move forward as a democracy.

For the past four years, Reels has led the tribe, appearing often in public and making new efforts to reach out to its critics and the local community. A much-publicized effort to reach an agreement with Ledyard, Preston and North Stonington over the tribe's desire to add 165 acres to its reservation was unsuccessful. Reels also has made quieter efforts to build bridges to surrounding residents through a group called Friends and Neighbors that meets over potluck meals in local churches.

Still, relations with surrounding towns remain frosty. Reels also has been stung by persistent accusations by local author Jeff Benedict that he is not truly a Pequot. Recently, Reels and his lawyers presented what they said was conclusive evidence linking him to tribal ancestors.

Long-rumored expansion plans for Foxwoods have yet to be announced, even as a new $1 billion hotel and gambling complex at Mohegan Sun has drawn rave reviews across the casino industry and Indian country. Foxwoods, however, remains one of the largest and most profitable casinos in the world.

What I've heard is that Michael Thomas and Skip Hayward are campaigning for the chairmanship, said Robert Congdon, Preston's first selectman. Congdon, who occasionally played racquetball and golf with Reels, said he hopes this is an opportunity to improve relations between area towns and the tribe.

Congdon said he was not surprised at Reels' decision to back off. It takes a tremendous amount of time. It's a frustrating job. It's like being first selectman. I don't see it as some clandestine story or as a reflection on the job he did or didn't do. He did the best job he could do.