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How four tiny Indian tribes, with help from powerful gambling interests, are trying to transform the Bay Area into a slot machine Mecca

Wednesday, Oct 27 2004
When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's deal with the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians to bring Las Vegas-style gambling to San Pablo came unraveled in August -- amid an outcry over potential traffic congestion -- among the naysayers was a veteran Bay Area congressman, Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez). So great was the uproar that the Legislature, after having ratified compacts the governor had signed earlier with nine other tribes, refused to bless the deal, putting it on hold until early next year. But the representative's hand-wringing over the tiny Indian group's dream of opening the state's first slot-machine palace in a major metropolitan setting had a distinctly hollow ring. It was Miller, after all, who had made the deal possible in the first place, after he sneaked a three-sentence piece of legislation into an obscure federal spending bill four years ago, which helped secure land beneath a San Pablo card club -- to which the Lyttons had no ancestral connection -- as tribal territory.

Things are seldom as they appear in the theater of the absurd known as California Indian gaming. Indeed, Native Americans have become little more than human props in the high-stakes battle involving real estate developers, powerful consultants, and out-of-state gaming interests to bring casino gambling -- until now confined to reservations in mostly remote areas -- closer to urban centers.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Bay Area. Even as the members of the Santa Rosa-based Lyttons, a band of only 220 people, keep their fingers crossed that the deal they thought they had worked out with the governor doesn't get derailed, some heavy hitters have lined up behind three little-known other groups of Pomo Indians also aiming to open casinos on San Francisco's doorstep.

In the unincorporated East Bay area of North Richmond, just four miles from San Pablo, Florida real estate tycoon Alan Ginsburg is pushing a casino on behalf of the 176-member Scott's Valley Band of Pomo. Ginsburg is also the force behind the casino ambitions announced earlier this month by the Lower Lake Rancheria-Koi Nation -- a "sovereign nation" of only 30 people whose tribal finances are almost totally dependent on Ginsburg's largess. He wants to build Lower Lake's casino near Oakland International Airport. Advising him on both projects is Kevin Gover, the former head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Meanwhile, a group led by Emeryville investor Jim Levine has teamed up with Harrah's, the Nevada gaming giant, to try to build yet another Bay Area casino on behalf of the 112-member Guidiville Band of Pomo, headquartered near Ukiah. If they succeed, their planned gaming resort destination would go up on an isolated stretch of East Bay shoreline at Richmond's Point Molate, on property the U.S. Navy abandoned as a fuel depot. Levine and Harrah's have enlisted lobbying support from former U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen.

With Schwarzenegger vowing not to approve any more urban casinos (by law he had to negotiate with the Lyttons after Miller helped them acquire land via an Act of Congress), the current Bay Area gambling rush might appear to be an exercise in futility. But, again, appearances can be deceiving. Not widely known outside Indian gaming circles is the fact that each of the Pomo tribes in the Bay Area hunt is exempt from a provision of federal law requiring a governor's consent should the feds let the tribe acquire reservation land for casino purposes. "Giving a plot of land to a tribe that has no historical connection to it so that they can build a casino is motivated by one thing, and it's called money," says former Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy, who served on a special commission appointed by Congress in the 1990s to study the impacts of gambling.

Even without the Bay Area casino push, California is poised to overtake Nevada as the nation's gaming capital within a few years. In the four years since Proposition 1A gave the green light to gaming on the state's Indian reservations, gambling at flashy new casinos has exploded, with net revenue approaching nearly $6 billion a year. That's compared with $9 billion in Nevada, where gambling has been legal since shortly after World War II. (As sovereign nations, the tribes pay no state taxes, but they do contribute about $130 million a year to tribes that don't have gaming operations and also reimburse local governments for public services.) Under compacts negotiated by former Gov. Gray Davis, which expire in 2020, each tribe is limited to 2,000 slot machines. But Schwarzenegger, who faces a staggering budget deficit, has taken a different approach, offering tribes as many slot machines as the market will bear in return for their sharing proceeds with the state.

Nine tribes have taken him up on the offer since last year. The Lyttons would be the 10th. But a handful of large tribes have balked, instead pushing Proposition 70 on the Nov. 2 ballot, which would essentially scrap the compacts under which the state's 54 gaming tribes currently operate and replace them with new 99-year compacts that would free the tribes from the threat of non-Indian casino competition. For their part, card club and racetrack interests are pushing another measure, Proposition 68, that would allow them to install slot machines at tracks and gambling halls, effectively ending the Indians' monopoly on Las Vegas-style gambling. Polls show neither measure faring well with prospective voters.

Against that backdrop the small Pomo tribes and their powerful backers face opposition from not only anti-gaming forces, but also other gaming tribes, whose casinos in mostly rural areas could suffer should casino gambling take hold in the Bay Area. "Some of the larger tribes are steaming over this, and not just for business reasons, but because it's made them look like liars when they were saying during the Prop. 1A campaign that voters didn't have to worry about gaming expanding off the reservations," says Nelson Rose, an Indian law expert at Whittier College, near Los Angeles. "Now, with what's going on in the Bay Area, we're seeing a new twist on how Indian land is defined."

About The Author

Ron Russell


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