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And the Rumsey are even pro-union (“a necessary evil,” in Paula’s words), their workers holding one of the only two collective-bargaining contracts among the state casinos. The workers that HERE had brought in to lobby the state Legislature to ratify the compacts all came from the Cache Creek Casino. And all eagerly praised Paula’s tribe for providing good wages and family health care. “What’s unique in this industry is the palpable level of fear,” says HERE organizer Krajcinovic. “The workers see how much unfettered power the tribes have, with no way to sue for workers’ comp, no OSHA, no building codes, and how in some places the tribe has bought off the local government. We’re trying to build a statewide movement while this industry is exploding. The new compacts are hugely important, as they set the standard. And Cache Creek is the best example.”
Paula Lorenzo knew she was sticking her neck out to sign a pact with the governor, and with labor, for that matter, contradicting the strategy of other, more recalcitrant tribes. “Yeah, to be honest, some tribes are probably going to get mad at us for signing this compact,” she tells me. “But they’re busy fighting so many brushfires with their own community, and we’re not.”
“For me, it’s all about business,” Paula says. “If you’re going to do business with people, you have to treat them well, treat them with the utmost respect. You know, Big Money threatens people. So we have to put people at ease and show them we know how to do the right thing.”
A full day’s drive to the south of the Rumsey, two hours southeast of L.A. along I-10, just before the turnoff for Palm Springs, a 23-story skyscraper towers over the desert floor. Without question, it’s the tallest building within 50 or maybe even a hundred miles.
The only building more than a half-dozen or so floors high in the entire Coachella Valley, the hotel tower is the crown jewel in the new 600,000-square-foot casino-and-resort complex now being completed by the Morongo Band of Indians. Like the Rumsey, the Morongos parlayed what was once a humble roadside bingo room into a fabulously wealthy gambling empire with a flashing, rocking casino at its center.
But the defiant lone tower set against the sweeping, natural desert and mountain vistas around it is, alas, an unfortunate but fitting symbol of the attitude that many local tribes maintain toward their neighbors. As one enraged Palm Springs community activist pointedly put it: “So much for the notion that some people are genetically predisposed to be better stewards.”
Unlike the Rumsey, the Morongos want no truck with the governor’s new type of tribal compacts. Nor do the Morongos care much for community cooperation. They are among eight tribes that operate nine casinos in the Valley, making the Palm Springs area a viable future competitor against Las Vegas as a “destination resort” — a place you might bunk into for a long weekend, primarily, but not only, to gamble. All together, the eight tribes give back only about $10 million a year to Riverside County. Compare that with, say, the $13 million that one single Northern California tribe, the United Auburn, pays annually to the much smaller, rural Placer County (the Auburn have also signed on to the governor’s new compacts).
But the biggest player in the concentration of Palm Springs gaming is the 350-member Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, the veritable 900-pound gorilla of Indian gaming tribes. Easily the wealthiest and most powerful of California tribes, it not only operates two casinos in the Palm Springs area, it is also the desert resort town’s largest landholder. According to estimates from its longtime Chairman Richard Milanovich, one of the few registered Republicans among California tribal leaders, the tribe controls 65 percent of the developable land in Palm Springs and neighboring Cathedral City. The tribe owns a local bank as well as lucrative stakes in malls, even in the local airport.
By 1998, the Agua Caliente Band was the third largest contributor to state political campaigns. By 2000, it was hosting events at both the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Over the last six years, the tribe has doled out more than $20 million in political contributions. And when the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission complained that more than $7 million of those contributions were defectively reported, the tribe argued in court, unsuccessfully, that its sovereign status exempted it from complying with state campaign rules.
Tribal officials didn’t return calls seeking comment for this story. But just as Paula Lorenzo’s tribe evokes rather universal praise, the critics of Chairman Milanovich’s Agua Caliente Band are legion and vocal, singling out the tribe for everything that’s wrong about Indian gaming. Part of the problem, some say, is that the tribe was already wealthy before the legalization of casinos and is therefore insensitive to the sort of two-way relationship that must be forged with local communities, and the casino bonanza has only made things worse. “That tribe has a whole history of self-importance and arrogance,” says Sacramento lawyer Howard Dickstein, who represented the Rumsey and other tribes in the new compact negotiations with the governor. “They’ve had money a long time, and it makes it difficult for them to show respect for other governments. They’re know-it-alls. But, in fact, they are not very sophisticated at all. They lack political subtlety. They’re crass.”