At Casino, A Search For Springsteen & GOP Soul

Melissa Bailey PhotosWilliam Wynn, a Republican who grew up in New Haven’s public-housing projects, stepped into Mohegan Sun and confronted a question: Where are the other black Republicans?

Floatin’ Fred, an independent voter who grew up in West Haven’s projects, entered the casino with a different question: Where are the Springsteen tickets?

Those dual searches took place this past weekend weekend in the windowless corridors of the Mohegan Sun casino complex. Wynn was one of 1,253 delegates who drove in from all over the state to take part in the Republican state convention, which ran Friday afternoon through Saturday afternoon. Floatin’ Fred was one of thousands of fans who staked out the box office, bartered with high-rollers, and even crossed oceans for a chance to snag last-minute tickets to sold-out Bruce Springsteen concerts Saturday or Sunday night in the casino’s 10,000-seat arena.

Springsteen provided the soundtrack—at times with in song, at times in spirit—to both events. For the delegates and fans who flooded the casino, the weekend became a quest for the soul of the Grand Old Party and for the mantle of the working-class hero, as embodied by the nation’s “Steinbeck in leather,” aka “Bruce.”

For both groups, the journey began Friday afternoon.

A Small Band From New Haven

Wynn, who’s 50, showed up at the Sky Casino valet parking carport. The path to the Convention Center led through the casino, where peppy electronic music gave way to the robotic cheer of endlessly whirling slot machines.

He stepped through the swinging doors into the “Comeback Corridor,” as the party had dubbed the convention center lobby for the weekend. “Comeback” was the tagline chosen by a party that has not elected a candidate to statewide office since 2006. The hall, like the entire convention, featured no music.

Wynn was among the fresh faces who showed up at Mohegan to try to energize the GOP and topple the Democrats’ political monopoly in Connecticut. After losing an election for New Haven alder last year, Wynn has set his sights on a new goal: To become New Haven’s first black Republican mayor in 2019. That’s in a town that has not elected a Republican mayor since 1951.

Meanwhile, he was one of the lonely at Mohegan Sun, in two ways: An African-American. And, even rarer in this crowd, a New Haven Republican.

Unlike at Friday’s Democratic state party convention, where New Haven was the powerhouse with 91 delegates, New Haven’s Republican delegation was one of the smallest in the state, totaling just six people. That’s because out of 69,881 registered voters in New Haven, only 2,461 are Republicans. A whopping 49,571 are Democrats, as of the latest count.

Wynn was making his debut at a political convention. He was asked why he journeyed up to Mohegan Sun.

“In order to service the people,” he replied, “I need to know what the heck I’m doing.”

His voyage began at a state GOP workshop on the “rules of engagement” for dealing with “urban” voters—the party’s 30-minute gesture of outreach to minorities, scheduled hours before any significant events. The workshop, which was first on the schedule, drew a small audience: About 40 of the 1,200 delegates. All but a handful were white.

Wynn stood in the back and listened quietly.

Whither History?

Regina Roundtree, chair of the Connecticut GOP Urban Affairs Committee, offered some practical tips on how to win votes in cities.

First, she offered a cartoon (pictured) critiquing the way the GOP has treated minorities.

“Our study concludes that this is the percentage of our customers who will buy from us without any effort whatsoever on our part,” the cartoon reads.

That’s been the party’s attitude in recent years, Roundtree conceded.

She said black voters are wary of the GOP. They won’t be lured by an offer to “join the party.” So she encouraged Republicans to make a personal pitch, not a political one.

Her second tip: “He who argues history will lose.”

In visits to urban black voters, some people will be tempted to list Republicans in history who were supportive of civil rights, such as Abraham Lincoln, Roundtree said.

Black voters won’t buy that, she said: “If you try to argue history, they will say, ‘What have you done in the last two to 10 years?’” Where are the black GOP candidates? Where have Republicans been in urban neighborhoods?

Roundtree suggested not looking to the past. Instead, “just say, ‘I am here today, let’s move forward,’” she offered.

After her speech, Roundtree was asked how many black delegates were at this year’s convention. She estimated “seven to 10”—less than 1 percent.

“We’ve got work to do,” she acknowledged. All of the candidates for 11 Congressional and statewide offices this year are white.

Wynn listened to Roundtree’s tips, and to a subsequent panel on the youth vote, which featured an all-white panel of mostly suburban party members.

“It’s unfortunate” that there are so few blacks at the convention, Wynn said as he left the room. “We need to embrace the black community to make them understand Republicans more.”

Wynn, who grew up in the Quinnipiac Terrace projects in New Haven’s Fair Haven neighborhood, became a Republican as a teen. He offered his take on why other urban African-Americans should follow his lead. Disregarding Roundtree’s advice, he spoke of how lots of important African-American leaders throughout history have been Republicans. He mentioned civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (whom many conservatives claim for the GOP but who declined affiliation with either major party) and barrier-breaking baseball player Jackie Robinson.

“Once the handouts started coming over” from Democrats to minorities, Wynn said, black voters switched camps.

He said Republicans stand for the individual’s right to liberty, but they’re misunderstood. Young black people “have the idea that Republicans are rich white people who don’t care about blacks and Latinos,” said Wynn. “That’s the Republicans’ fault for not going out there into the city.”

Wynn rode the escalator back to the Comeback Corridor.

Blue Collars

Meanwhile, out in the casino, past the gushing faux-rock waterfall, past the Chihuly sculpture “River Blue,” a different convention was taking place. Fans lined up as early as Friday morning in search of tickets to see Springsteen; though the shows had sold out instantly, the box office released some last-minute tickets that had been put on hold until the stage was set up.

The crowd included two guys from Manchester, England, who had flown across the Atlantic just to look for tickets to the two sold-out shows.

The convention had its own literature—$35 Springsteen memorabilia books—and its own rules of order. A woman named Alessandra, who flew in from Torino, Italy, showed up at the casino hoping to see her 85th Springsteen show. A self-appointed Bruce convention chair, she scrawled numbers in permanent black marker on fans’ hands to organize the crowd.

Competition for the tickets was especially fierce because of the small size of the venue, and because Mohegan was hosting the final two shows scheduled so far on Springsteen’s two-year tour.

Richard and his Diana flew in from San Diego to see if they could score tickets. They waited at the threshold of Casino of the Earth alongside scalpers and other far-flung fans. Joseph said he’s a Republican. Like those at the political convention down the hall, he wore his guy’s name emblazoned on his chest. Other folks in similar T-shirts represented a range of political persuasions and socioeconomic status: Democrats and independents, doctors and working stiffs.

One woman sported a cowboy hat that bore more Bruce buttons than any diehard delegate wore for any GOP candidates. The woman, a Democrat who goes only by the name “Hat,” explained Springsteen’s appeal.

“He’s a blue-collar guy,” she said. “He’s for everybody who’s down and out.”

Floatin’ Fred, a familiar face in New Haven who now lives in Ansonia, put on a casino-themed black shirt with metallic dice as buttons and got in line for tickets, too. He said he’s been a Springsteen fan ever since age 13, when he hopped a city bus from the West Haven housing projects to see the band Chicago in 1973. The show was at the old New Haven Coliseum, which Fred refers to as “the House of Dreams” (may it rest in peace). Bruce opened for Chicago that night. Fred saw Springsteen again in 1978 on the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour.

“It seemed like every song he was doing, he was talking to me,” Fred recalled.

The True Bruce?

Back in the Convention Center, Joe Visconti looked like he was dressed for the wrong convention. Visconti, the Tea Party’s best hope at capturing the governor’s mansion, and an underdog in the governor’s race, walked the halls wearing jeans.

He professed his love for Springsteen—and employed The Boss as part of a critique on the direction of his party.

Visconti, a contractor and former West Hartford town councilman, proclaimed himself the champion of the common Republican man: He rides a horse and a Harley. He fashioned his campaign stickers to look like NASCAR logos. He opposes abortion and gay marriage. He supports gun rights.

“I carry a gun,” he announced.

At the convention?

“Of course not,” Visconti said. “I’m at a casino.”

Connecticut Republicans have abandoned the national party platform on gay marriage, abortion and guns, he argued.

“They’re not Republicans,” he said. “I am.”

Visconti said the delegates inside the convention were too concerned with titles (his top contender in the governor’s race, Tom Foley, was an ambassador) and fancy degrees. (Another contender, state Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, graduated from Yale.) Those Republicans have no claim on the Bruce mantle. To Visconti, that’s a liability on the party’s comeback campaign trail.

“I don’t think people want a button-down administration,” Visconti said. “I don’t think they can connect to that.”

He said he will stand for “regular people,” not millionaires. Just like Bruce Springsteen.

Visconti belted out a Springsteen lyric that he said could be a motto for his campaign: “Tramps like us, baby we were born to ruuuuun.”

He said he didn’t get Springsteen tickets, but “I’m going to try to break in.”

Born in the USA

Farther down the Comeback Corridor, in search of candidates, New Haven’s Wynn bumped into gubernatorial hopeful McKinney.

“I’ll probably lose votes for this,” said McKinney, but “I was never a huge Bruce Springsteen fan.”

McKinney said he saw Springsteen once in the ‘80s at the Meadowlands on the Born in the USA tour. It was “fun,” but nothing special.

“To be honest, I thought I heard he was a Democrat,” McKinney said of Springsteen. “I don’t know why we would want to claim him as ours.”

Chris Healy (pictured), the former Connecticut GOP chairman, agreed. He said his wife is a fan, so he went to a Springsteen concert once.

“I don’t mind the music,” said Healy. But “between sets, two to three times, he went on and on and on about Bush and Republicans.” Why would a Republican pay $250 a ticket for that? Healy reasoned.

Not all Republicans agree. For years, politicians from both major parties have been eager to capitalize on Springsteen’s working-man cred.

Ronald Reagan famously employed Springsteen’s name in 1984, when his reelection campaign stopped through New Jersey.

“America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in songs of a man so many young Americans admire—New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen,” Reagan said. “And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.”

Springsteen dismissed Reagan’s endorsement at the time: “Well, the president was mentioning my name in his speech the other day, and I kind of got to wondering what his favorite album of mine must’ve been, you know? I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.”

The quest for Springsteen’s cred continues to the present day. Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, an exuberant Springsteen fan who has emerged as a potential 2016 presidential contender, has tried to capitalize on the Boss’s name for his political pursuits. Springsteen has publicly rebuked him—most stingingly in a Jimmy Fallon late-night parody slamming the governor for the Bridgegate scandal.

President Obama capitalized on the New Jersey working-man’s name in his 2012 reelection campaign, winning Springsteen’s endorsement and using one of his recent songs, “We Take Care of Our Own,” as an anthem for his reelection campaign.

Several Republicans at the convention at Mohegan Sun cited “Born in the USA” as their favorite Springsteen song.

“It’s just uplifting. It’s an everyone song. Next to the star spangled banner, it’s next,” said Wynn.

Billy Joel: The True Boss?

Dick Foley, a former Connecticut Republican Party boss from a bygone era, worked the edges of the Uncas Ballroom toting an e-cigarette. He boasted that he could get Springsteen tickets in a snap if he wanted to. But he said he didn’t want to. And he doesn’t want to claim The Boss for Republicans.

“I’ve actually read the lyrics to ‘Born in the USA,’” Foley said. “I don’t think it’s a very inclusive democracy” that Springsteen paints in the song.

Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” has been rampantly misunderstood as a flag-waving anthem. The verses actually lament how the U.S. failed those who fought in the Vietnam War. In Springsteen’s own words, the song is about “a working-class man” in “spiritual crisis, in which man is left lost ... It’s like he has nothing left to tie him into society anymore. He’s isolated from the government. Isolated from his family ... to the point where nothing makes sense.”

Dick Foley said he listened to an all-Billy Joel XM station on his way to Mohegan.

“I always thought Republicans were more Billy Joel,” he said.

New Haven delegate Nancy Ahern, a 77-year-old former alder (pictured knitting a strip for an afghan, which she worked on throughout the convention), said she wasn’t interested in Springsteen tickets.

“I’m not up with pop music,” she said. “I listen to symphony music.”

Healy and Foley answered to Visconti’s critique that the Connecticut GOP has strayed far from the interests and values of the common Republican man.

Unlike the Connecticut Democratic Party, the state GOP does not have a platform, Healy pointed out.

Dick Foley, who served in the state legislature for a decade, said the party has always left “social issues,” such as the death penalty and abortion, up to individual legislators and their constituents. He said his constituents in Oxford were against gay marriage, but that doesn’t mean the party as a whole needs to be. He has known 15 to 20 gay Republican legislators over the years, he said, and he has no problem with that.

Foley was asked about Visconti’s critique that the state GOP caters to Fairfield County golfers instead of Nascar fans.

To be successful, Foley said, a political party has to include people across cultural divides. Ronald Reagan was good at spanning those divides, he said, as was Bill Clinton.

Though neither of them sold as many records as Bruce Springsteen.

“I Feel Good”

The state GOP threw open its tent Friday when it invited a special guest for a $50-a-plate fundraiser. The guest was New England’s only Republican governor, Paul LePage of Maine.

LePage, a Tea Party favorite, has laid claim to the working-class vote—though his reputation hasn’t helped the GOP with its outreach to racial minorities. LePage has drawn controversy for a series of offensive statements, including one in which he denounced the local NAACP as a “special interest” that can “kiss my butt.”

LePage wasn’t invited into the convention to speak. Convention organizers first said the event was open to the press, but with no photography allowed. When the Independent showed up, a staffer blocked the media from attending the event at all.

New Haven’s Wynn didn’t try to get in to see LePage. He focused on the task at hand for that evening: Casting a vote for a Republican nominee to challenge Democrat Rosa DeLauro for her Third U.S. Congressional District Congress seat. Two guys—Steve Packard of Hamden and James Brown of Stratford—ran for the bid. Brown won.

Brown, who’s white, began his acceptance speech by impersonating an African-American. One with whom he shares a name.

“Ow! I feeeel goood,” crooned Brown (pictured), channeling the Godfather of Soul.

Art DeSorbo, an East Haven delegate, took a snooze.

“Going Down, Down”

Springsteen ticket-seekers dispersed when the box office closed at 8 p.m. Friday. GOP conventioneers, released from their own duties, spread through the casino to dine at American-themed eateries such as Johnny Rockets diner, the Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse, and the Jimmy Buffet Margaritaville, which features a giant spinning margarita glass and young men traversing the dining room on stilts, making balloon animals.

The New Hartford delegation headed to the smoke-free gaming zone, where delegates sat down next to slot machines with names like “Jackpot Kingdom.”

Delegate Jim Fitzgerald (pictured), who sits on New Hartford’s Board of Finance, played the slots for a while, then gave up. He turned his attention to watching a fellow delegate’s assets plummet from $100 to 75 cents.

Just then, the voice of Springsteen entered the casino through the sound system, which had been playing a mix of oldies and new pop songs.

“I’m going down, down down,” Springsteen sang.

“I’m sick and tired of you setting me up, setting me up just to knock, knock, knock-a me down.”

The voice turned out to be a recording from Track 9 on the Born in the USA album, not a surprise pre-concert appearance. It offered an empathetic anthem for the gamblers, and a woeful reminder to those of us who still hadn’t found tickets to his show.

Just half an hour later, at 11:15 p.m., Springsteen returned to the airwaves again—perhaps an effort by the hidden casino deejay to inspire boozy high-rollers to cash in their Mohegan points for tickets to the show.

This time the song was “Glory Days.”

It was time to go.

“I only got two free spins,” lamented a Republican delegate as her group left the slot machines and headed to sleep.

Glory Days

Both groups—hungry ticket-seekers and GOP convention delegates—stepped out of the sunshine Saturday morning, back into the eternal twilight of Mohegan Sun.

Springsteen fans formed a line at the box office. The line got so long it snaked back into the Casino of the Earth.

“Is this the line for the buffet?” asked an elderly woman.

“Yes, the Bruce buffet,” quipped a fan.

GOP delegates returned to the Uncas Ballroom to get their fill. On the menu: Three candidates for governor, three for lieutenant governor, and a competitive lineup for treasurer, comptroller and attorney general.

After some last-minute vote-switching, delegates picked Tom Foley (no relation to Dick), the former ambassador, as its nominee, with 57 percent of the vote. McKinney and Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, who made national news cracking down on Latino immigrants in his town, won spots in a three-way primary with 18 and 22 percent of the vote. Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti won 13 delegates, or 1 percent. Visconti snagged 21 votes from his party establishment, less than 2 percent of the vote. He said he has already begun work collecting the 8,190 Republican signatures he needs to get on the Aug. 12 primary ballot.

Republicans are gearing up for a close race: After winning the Republican primary four years ago, Foley lost by less than 1 percent to Democrat Dannel P. Malloy. Recent polls show the two in a dead heat.

In his acceptance speech, Foley recounted how the nation suffered under Jimmy Carter.

“Then Ronald Reagan rode into town,” he said. “He led us out of the doldrums.”

Connecticut under Gov. Malloy is suffering in the same way, Foley argued. He vowed to “restore the pride and promise Connecticut had before Dan Malloy became governor,” just as Reagan had done for the country. He vowed to hold spending flat for two years, and eliminate the business entity tax for small business owners. And he vowed to do right by cities like New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford, which were key in delivering victory to Malloy four years ago.

Foley didn’t follow Reagan’s lead in asserting that “America’s future ... rests in the message of hope” in Springsteen’s songs.

Foley was later asked about Reagan’s quote.

“I’m not familiar enough with Bruce Springsteen’s music to know whether that’s the case or not,” Foley replied.

Foley said he missed the Springsteen craze. “I sort of skipped from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones” to “more modern stuff” like U2, Maroon 5, Train, and Coldplay.

Foley left the arena, skipping Springsteen’s show.

“House of Dreams”

Most of the delegates went home Saturday, too. Meanwhile, Bruce fans poured in in droves.

The 10,000-strong crowd, which appeared to be even whiter than the GOP convention, roared as Springsteen took stage shortly after 8 p.m. He opened with the 1978 classic “Racing in the Street.” A sea of outstretched hands endorsed him instantly. Every word he sang echoed in thousands of voices.

Between the feel-good cheers of “Two Hearts” and “Stayin’ Alive,” he played a few songs with political overtones.

He slowed it down for “American Skin (41 Shots),” a protest of the police shooting death of Amadou Diallo. He stomped out “Shackled and Drawn,” one of a series of recession-themed hits that draw from how big banks screwed the little man in the mortgage crisis. He got spiritual in “The Rising,” a gospel-inspired number that aimed to help heal the nation in the wake of 9/11.

Springsteen, who’s 64, approached the show with characteristic full-bodied exertion that has kept fans coming back for decades. He swung on the microphone stand, soaked through his shirt with sweat, and even crowd-surfed across the arena while singing “Raise Your Hand.”

He leaned into the crowd, letting fans clutch his legs and stroke his guitar. One woman held up a sign asking for a hug because she had lost her money at the casino. He put down his guitar, climbed into the pit and held her for a slow dance.

Toward the end of the show, he played a rare acoustic solo rendition of a simple ballad off of his 2007 album, Magic. The chorus offered a secret to his continued success—and a free tip to any political candidate seeking to woo the working-class voter.

Khoi Ton for Mohegan Sun“I’ll work for your love,” Bruce pledged.

“What others may want for free
I’ll work for your love.”

Alessandra, the Italian fan who had helped the ticketless Springsteen pilgrims get into the show, smiled broadly and danced throughout the three-hour-plus production. Alessandra had traveled from Italy to see Springsteen play in Albany, Hershey, Pennsylvania, and Mohegan Sun. Towards the end of the concert, she finally heard the song she had waited 84 shows to hear, “Pay the Price.” She hugged the new friends she had made in line and gave me a high-five.

She was asked if she thinks of Bruce as the quintessential American. She replied that she doesn’t know.

Her entire idea of what America is, she said, is “all shaped through him.”

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posted by: Xavier on May 19, 2014  8:46am

While not being Jewish, I guess having the Republican Convention on Friday over night to Saturday, probably excluded yet another group of people.

But, hey I guess that is just another part of a winning strategy.

Somehow New Haven, Bridgeport, and Hartford are going to be treated well by Foley. Hmmmm ok, where do I vote?

posted by: Anderson Scooper on May 19, 2014  9:12am

I predict the Jets will win a Super Bowl before the CT Republicans ever re-gain relevancy.

Here’s hoping Foley wins his primary. Malloy will destroy him in the fall.

posted by: connecticutcontrarian on May 19, 2014  12:17pm

At first I thought this was comical but now I find it both pitiful and disheartening.  To completely ignore political history is ignorant. To attempt to rewrite that history is dangerous.  Here’s the reality: the GOD will never win a sizeable cohort of minority voters (Black, Latinos, women, LGBT, etc) until it changes its policy positions. Packaging means nothing. What the party needs to decide is whether it’s worth abandoning that policy core.

Beyond that, how out of touch do you have to be to have a convention at a casino while touting fiscal responsibility, limited government,  and business innovation?? These are many of the same politicians who sought to block the casinos and opposed Native American sovereignty

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on May 19, 2014  1:15pm

Both Parties are the same.One is a boxspring the other the matress.Both sell the people out.

posted by: Wooster Squared on May 20, 2014  9:20am

@Xavier and @Anderson Scooper,

Completely disagree here. It’s easy to think the GOP is doomed when you spend all your time in New Haven, where you’re more likely to see a unicorn than a registered Republican.

I says this as a life-long Democrat. I wouldn’t go spiking the football just yet.

Venture outside of the New Haven bubble and you’ll quickly find that a very large number of voters are unhappy with Dan Malloy. The Republicans just need to present themselves as a not-terrible alternative. To the average voter, all Malloy has done is push through an enormous tax increase with nothing to show for it.

Most voters in CT just don’t care that much about the social programs or identify politics that Malloy and Co. have spent so much time harping on this year.

While many of his policy ideas are spot-on, he’s shown himself to be an ineffective communicator and sometimes comes off a bit bumbling.

He is struggling to articulate his accomplishments and even his fellow Democrats running for office seem to be doing their best to distance themselves from him.

It’s easy to laugh at the CT Republicans given their past performance, but I’d rather be them than us this election cycle.