By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“What they did is that they screwed us out of who we are. It’s like if someone came to you and said you’re no longer a U.S. citizen,” says 45-year-old Michael Madariaga, grandson of Lawrence. For 11 years he worked as a stock manager at the tribal resort; he was fired after he was disenrolled. “None of this really started till after Prop. 1A was passed,” he says, referring to the 2000 ballot initiative that green-lighted Nevada-style Indian casinos. “The minute [gambling] became legal, everything began to change. I personally voted against the casino, knowing it would change everything about us. We were voting ways they didn’t like, 100 votes they didn’t like. That’s what this is about.”
The younger Madariaga’s anger remains red-hot a year after his disenrollment. “Mark Macarro speaks with a forked tongue,” he says. “The lies are outrageous. He has brought more shame on us than any other tribe has suffered. Other tribes think what he has done to us is shameful. I call him Mark ‘Hitler’ Macarro.”
That’s not a view shared by the throngs that overflow the Pechanga resort on the Friday night after Thanksgiving. They’re hoping Macarro is more like Santa Claus. That’s assuming that the patrons even know, or care, who Macarro is, or for that matter, who the Pechanga are. In the meantime, there’s a long line of cars backed up and waiting for the casino valet. The $100 tickets to the show by Tom Jones are sold out. There’s a long line even for the junk food in the food court. The gaming tables are elbow to elbow, even with a $15 minimum for blackjack bets. The usual bruisers in black suits are controlling the rope line at the sleek Silk nightclub on the second floor. There’s a waiting list for just about any game in the 60-table poker room, home base for this year’s winner of the World Series of Poker, Temecula’s Jerry Yang, who qualified for the competition at the Pechanga card parlor. And the slot machines, row after row after row after row of them, are hungrily sucking in the cash and spitting out the meager remains.
No wonder, then, that the Pechanga, along with the other three wealthy tribes that stand to benefit from the expansion deals signed by the governor, have already ponied up a massive $45 million war chest to defend the agreements when they go before the voters on February 5, and are reportedly willing to spend another $30 million before the fight is over. If it withstands voter scrutiny, the Pechanga deal would allow the tribe to move from its current limit of 2,000 slot machines to 7,500 for the next 23 years. Industry experts estimate that each machine turns an average profit of as much as $300 a day. Doing the math might also explain why, during the first six months of 2007, the Pechanga spent $32,000 on meals and parties given to California lawmakers, according to lobbying reports filed with the state. During that period, a quarter of state legislators were treated to freebies at the expense of the Pechanga. At one casino dinner in March attended by state Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, four staff aides and the tribe’s leadership, the tab picked up by the tribe was $4,300.
It’s all legal, if not entirely wholesome. And it’s but a pittance in the context of the literally tens of millions of dollars given by the four tribes in political contributions since Indian gaming was legalized. The combined revenue of California’s Indian casinos, nearing $8 billion, is now greater than the take from all the casinos on the Las Vegas Strip. With that sort of clout, the Pechanga and the other tribes got their way when, in late June, the Assembly finally ratified the expansion deals that had been bottled up for months.
Democratic lawmakers had been under intense pressure from their traditional allies in the labor movement to hold up the revised agreements, known as compacts, because they lacked sufficient guarantees for union organizing. And the affected tribes, including the Pechanga, have been notoriously phobic about unions. Soon after Governor Schwarzenegger came into office he notified California tribes that he would only agree to expansion of their current gambling operations if they agreed to kick back a significant portion of revenue to the state, and if they agreed to greater oversight and scrutiny, including an easing of labor rules so as to allow unionization of what have been mostly low-paid casino staff. (In the case of the Agua Caliente tribe, casino management has in the past organized seminars informing its paid staff on how to enroll their children in state-welfare medical programs.) But as powerful Indian tribes flexed their political and economic muscle, the governor performed his greatest historic flip-flop and dropped the pro-union demands. [See Cooper’s Nov. 28 L.A. Weekly “Dissonance” column, “Gambling Lobby Lapdogs,” at http://tinyurl.com/35c5lf.]
California unions reacted with fury when Speaker Nuñez led the Democrats this summer in ratifying the compacts that had been gutted of labor guarantees. The UNITE HERE hotel workers’ union quickly assembled a coalition of convenience, joining with the operators of the local Hollywood Park racetrack and card club, and with two other, smaller Indian gaming tribes, to challenge the agreements on the ballot. Raising an initial $4 million (with plans to raise $5 million more), the opponents collected the hundreds of thousands of signatures necessary and withstood various legal challenges brought by the tribes in order to ask California voters to turn thumbs down on the expansion on the February ballot.