Wednesday, January 13, 2010



It's true that Rodney Butler, the new chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Council, bears an almost uncanny resemblance to Barack Obama.

There is the affable and engaging smile, the lanky frame and, yes, the prominent ears.
Some people complained about recent news stories comparing the new Pequot chairman to the new president, saying the tribal leader should hardly be likened to the much accomplished Barack Obama, who, after all, was elected by a far more impressive mandate than the 450 or so eligible adult Pequot voters
I disagree. I think there are remarkable similarities.

Butler not only physically resembles the new president, he seems to be the Pequots' own Obama-like agent of change, the candidate able to successfully suggest to tribal members, in the midst of a wrenching financial crisis, that, yes, they can still make it work.

Butler, in his first forays last week into the public limelight of southeastern Connecticut, by way of some press interviews, appeared poised and confident and said all the right things.
He sounded conciliatory to officials of neighboring communities, who have often had frosty relations with tribal leaders over the years. He also spoke warmly of the tribe as a family and emphasized their accomplishments, including a business that, despite all its recent troubles, still employs 10,000 people.

Of course he was also guarded and smoothly dodged direct questions about tough topics, like the tribe's debt restructuring.

It's not that this was any bravado performance, more simply just good straightforward public relations.

What made it remarkable was that it is the kind of thing his predecessors have been consistently unable or unwilling to do in the past.

Butler, at 32, is curiously a product of the Pequots' prosperity, someone who grew up with some of the advantages of success. He was just 14 years old when Foxwoods opened.
He is an athlete and played football at the University of Connecticut, where he majored in finance. He later went to work for the family business, working as a financial analyst at Foxwoods. He was first elected to the tribal council in 2004, when he was still in his 20s.
He seems to have the makings to be an excellent ambassador for the tribe and a community builder, having already signed on, for instance, as a trustee of the Sea Research Foundation, Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration's nonprofit parent.

Butler was treasurer of the tribe before he was elected chairman last fall, and he was on the council for some of the recent years of overspending, before competition and the recession begat layoffs and budget cuts.

Still, he seems to understand the gravity of the tribe's obligations to its lenders as well as the need to reconcile the tribal membership to the shared sacrifices that surely lie ahead.
He also appears to realize that the tribe, like never before, needs the help of the larger community of southeastern Connecticut.

The job won't be easy. Butler is certainly the first chairman in recent Pequot history to take office when the tribe's business prospects are more bleak than rosy, when the most immediate decisions are not how to expand but rather how to pay for all the previous expansion.
At least, like Obama, he seems optimistic.

Congratulations to the new chairman and the Pequots who elected him.
This is the opinion of David Collins.

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