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Snyder opens up about casino tensions between state, Senecas

ALBANY – With the rhetoric getting ugly in the casino revenue-sharing dispute between the state of New York and the Seneca Nation of Indians, the two men at the center of the feud sat at a table last month in a 38th-floor office in a Manhattan skyscraper.

“There was tension. There had to be,” said Seneca President Barry Snyder Sr., describing the 90-minute meeting he had with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in the governor’s New York City office.

“I don’t think anybody came in thinking we were going to settle anything that day,” he added.

Instead, it was a session for two politicians and government leaders to feel each other out, to see how each other reacted to ideas and to see where there might be common ground.

For Cuomo, accustomed to dealing with legislative leaders, it meant offering a mix of firmness and respect for the elected leader of a sovereign Indian nation. For Snyder, it meant figuring out how to deal with another New York governor, something he has gone through often in his five, two-year terms as Seneca president since he won his first race in 1980.

“It was him understanding who I am and me understanding who he is. It was clear he was not going to give ground and I was not going to give ground,” Snyder said.

“He was probably sizing me up as I sized him up,” the Seneca leader said in an interview Friday, a day after he and Cuomo signed a deal ending a four-year dispute in which the Senecas withheld millions of dollars in casino revenue-sharing and other payments because of claims the state breached a 2002 compact giving the Senecas exclusive gambling rights in Western New York.

Under the deal, the Senecas get to keep $209 million of the $559.5 million in withheld revenue-sharing payments, and got a promise from Cuomo that no new non-Indian casinos will be located in a huge area from Lake Erie as far east as the central Finger Lakes.

And, according to the memorandum of understanding the state made public Friday, it is all but guaranteed that the tribe’s 2002 compact to run casinos in Niagara Falls, Buffalo and Salamanca will run until at least 2023 and not expire, as was possible, in 2016.

“In the end, nobody got 100 percent of what they wanted, but it was very good for both sides,” Snyder said.

For Cuomo’s part, the negotiating sessions with the Senecas, as well as leaders of the Oneida and St. Regis Mohawks with whom he also recently made casino agreements, took him back to his days as the nation’s housing and urban development secretary in the Clinton administration.

“Negotiating with Native Americans is different, much different” than his usual dealings with lawmakers in Albany, the governor explained.

For starters, he said in an interview after signing the agreement, a governor is technically “inferior” to a president of a sovereign Indian nation.

“This is nation-to-state,” he said of the protocol of how an Indian leader is to be treated.

Indeed, Snyder said he would not personally meet with Cuomo’s representatives unless Cuomo was in the room. Protocol, he explained.

After the May meeting, the two would not meet again until late Wednesday afternoon in Cuomo’s Capitol suite. Seneca counselors were already in Albany meeting with various officials, but Snyder said he had a condition for Cuomo when the governor called him and asked him on short notice to get to the Capitol.

“It was the most important meeting, but I was not going to go down until everything was positive,” the Seneca president said.

Key officials – including Cuomo’s top adviser Howard Glaser and Seneca general counsel Christopher Karns – kept negotiating final clauses. Also in the mix were a team of Cuomo lawyers and aides, while Snyder relied on a group of outsiders for help, including politically wired Albany lobbyist Tracy Lloyd and former Buffalo Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, now a lobbyist for the tribe, as well as lawyers based in Washington.

At 4:24 p.m. Wednesday, a chartered Learjet 35 left Buffalo with Snyder and his team, according to flight tracking service FlightAware. It was in Albany just 37 minutes later and Snyder was on his way to see Cuomo and the waiting Seneca councilors.

At 8:58 p.m., Snyder’s jet headed home – with the outlines of a deal in place. Final terms, and some sticking points, needed a last round of lawyer talks Thursday morning before Cuomo felt confident enough that a deal was done.

At 2 p.m. Thursday, the governor ordered two waiting State Police planes to take him and a contingent of Western New York lawmakers to Niagara Falls to announce the deal.

Cuomo and Snyder had talked often via phone over the weeks, and the final talks continued right up until Cuomo’s plane departed for Niagara Falls Thursday. But Glaser said the key breakthrough came Wednesday night when Cuomo met Snyder and Seneca Council members in his Capitol office.

“A lot of the complexity in dealing with the Seneca Nation is the need to get consensus by the whole council, and I think the governor really wanted to look them in the eye, face to face,” Glaser said.

Glaser said Cuomo then did something he hadn’t seen before: he told the Seneca leaders to take time to talk among themselves and to use his private office. They did so for 45 minutes.

“It was a moment of respect,” Glaser said.

The governor also acknowledged the problems created by the state that began, the Senecas say, when the state Lottery Division in 2008 let area racetrack “racinos” market themselves as full casinos.

“I think the governor was very direct with the council in saying he understood there had been a breach of trust over the years, and he believed they had a legitimate point and at the end of the day it wasn’t about the language of this contract but re-establishing a relationship with the Senecas,” said Glaser.

“It’s the reboot of the relationship with the Seneca Nation that goes beyond the casino compact itself,” Glaser said Friday.

The five-page casino agreement is as interesting for what it includes as for what it omits.

It includes the monetary terms, the new marketing restrictions on three existing area racetrack casinos and paragraphs about the tribe and state holding regular meetings to avoid future conflicts.

But unlike recent deals with the Oneidas, for example, it resolves no other disputes, whether land issues or tax-free sales of cigarettes and gasoline. It also does not compel the Senecas to support a casino expansion referendum that Cuomo hopes to take to voters in November.

The casino-owning Indians, including the Senecas, were seen as major bankrollers of efforts to try to kill the referendum.

“They never asked, and we never offered,” Snyder said of the referendum. He would not say if the tribe will take a position on the Cuomo plan to add seven new casinos in the state.

What’s more, Snyder said the Senecas might be interested in bidding on the development rights with a partner to run one of the casinos, especially in the Catskills, if the referendum passes. The Senecas years ago made a failed run to develop a Catskills casino.

“We would be interested again. We’re looking for partners,” Snyder said.

First, though, the memorandum that Snyder and Cuomo signed faces formal approval by the Seneca council; Snyder said he expects approval next week.

Snyder recently told The Buffalo News that Cuomo was “a bully.” On Thursday, he apologized to Cuomo for the remark.

But in Friday’s interview, Snyder dismissed any notion that the deals Cuomo made with the Oneidas and St. Regis Mohawks put pressure on the Senecas, as Cuomo allies believe. And he said the Senecas were confident they would win the binding arbitration case before a three-member panel where the dispute with Cuomo was taken last year. But, of arbitration he cautioned, “There are no guarantees.”

Moreover, Snyder said Cuomo’s public threat to locate a new casino, maybe even in downtown Niagara Falls, fell flat with Seneca leaders.

“That was just all political stuff. That was for the news media,” he said. Referring to the meeting Thursday, he added: “I told the governor when I met with him that I don’t really care if you do or do not put another casino in. I think that settled it. We’re a strong gaming entity, and we can compete with anybody.”

Snyder said he came to respect Cuomo by the end of the process.

“He’s a tough governor. I give him credit. He knows he’s a good politician,” the Seneca president said.