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Osten shows displeasure in vote against Lamont pick

Last Tuesday, state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, stood alone, conspicuous in her defiance of Gov. Ned Lamont.

The occasion was the Senate confirmation of Robert Clark to the state appellate court. Most recently, Clark, 49, was Lamont’s chief legal advisor. He also has experience working in the Office of the Attorney General and for a time served as a Superior Court judge.

This was Lamont’s guy. It was personal. There appeared to be nothing controversial about the nomination. It was a shoo-in. But when the roll was called there was one vote in opposition, Osten, co-chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee.

Pressed on why, the 19th District senator offered little.

“I just don’t think he should be in that position. I would just leave it at that,” she told the Connecticut Mirror.

But when I talked to her Wednesday, Osten elaborated. It was Clark’s “lack of commitment to indigenous people,” Osten said.

In 2014, Clark served as special counsel to then Attorney General George Jepsen in the state’s fight to block a change in the Bureau of Indian Affairs rules that would have made it easier for a state-recognized tribe to receive federal recognition. A tribe would have had to show the maintaining of a state reservation back to 1934, not the long-held standard of continuous community dating to first contact with European settlers. The change could have led to federal recognition, and potential casino bids, for three tribes recognized by the state but without federal designation — the Eastern Pequot, Schaghticoke, and Golden Hill Paugussett.

Ultimately, the rules were not fully adopted and the tribes are not federally recognized.

More recently, in his capacity as counsel to the governor, Clark was involved in the negotiations on whether a path could be found to legalize online sports betting and casino gaming in Connecticut. The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, federally recognized and operators of the Foxwoods Resort and Mohegan Sun casinos, maintained that their compact with the state gave them exclusive rights to sports betting and that they would have to sign off on any deal.

Osten is convinced Clark was an impediment to an agreement, likely after hearing from tribal leaders. She does not feel the administration recognizes the importance of the large, minority-owned casino businesses. A deal was reached only after Clark stepped back from the talks in recent weeks. The agreement allows both the state Lottery and tribes to offer sports betting and the tribes to provide casino games online. The details are now working their way through the state legislature.

The two tribes also agreed to abandon their pursuit of a third, jointly operated casino in East Windsor. Lamont has never been sold on the idea because it would invite litigation from the MGM Springfield casino.

Both the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot reservations are located in Osten’s district, which includes the towns of Columbia, Franklin, Hebron, Lebanon, Ledyard, Lisbon, Marlborough, Montville, Norwich and Sprague, where she is also a selectwoman.

Osten has become the leading legislator in pushing Native American issues. This session she has introduced bills to require the inclusion of Native American studies in public school Social Studies curriculum. She is also seeking greater state investment in the state-only recognized tribal reservations, including building a retaining wall on Schaghticoke tribal lands to address flooding resulting from a state-approved hydroelectric plant. Another bill, if enacted, would prohibit the use of Native American themed mascots by public schools.

The Eastern Pequots and Schaghticokes received federal recognition in the early 2000s, only to have the decision reversed on appeal in 2005. In recent Senate testimony, Osten noted the decision was painfully delivered on Columbus Day. She has filed legislation that would establish "Indigenous Peoples Day."

While she is pushing for better recognition of the histories and contributions of the state's indigenous people, Osten's decision to strike out at the governor's pick for the Appellate Court does not look like smart politics, particularly after the governor announced reaching the deal she had sought. Tough negotiations lie ahead on approval of the budget and the allocation of federal pandemic relief aid.

"I would hope the governor would not be so thin-skinned as to hold this vote against me, concerning a matter that is of great importance to me and which I have discussed with him," she said.

But even thick skin does not always prevent a wound from a sharp stick in the ribs. That is the kind of thing folks tend to remember.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.



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