IN THE BILTMORE HOTEL'S TIFFANY ROOM, waiters bearing trays of fresh fruit weave skillfully through the crowd, which is staring at the big-screen TVs. Television cameras are set on a riser, and camera crews sit by their Portabrace bags eating plates of bowtie pasta and meatballs, waiting for any news. A $100 million campaign buys a lot of media coverage, attracting a crew from San Diego and another from CBS.com to the victory party for Propositions 94 through 97, the Indian-gaming compacts.
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Elected officials in attendance — most of them recipients of the tribes' largesse — include Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, Assemblywoman Laura Richardson, Senator Alex Padilla, attorney Bob Hertzberg (former state speaker) and tribal member Dan McCrory, who's running for assembly in the 40th District.
McCrory, wearing an AFL-CIO button that reads “Kicking Ass for the Working Class,” appreciates the irony of the buttons worn by some waiters. The buttons promoted Unite Here, the union that opposed the four measures to vastly expand Indian casinos owned by the Pechanga, Sycuan, Morongo and Agua Caliente tribes in California. A Cherokee, McCrory has supported Indian gaming since voters handed the tribes exclusive rights to build a massive casino industry in California in 2000.
Like hundreds of other budding politicians, he hopes these now very rich casino tribes will pour cash into his race. He says he's got two obscure tribes backing him — the San Manuels and Augustine (adult population: one).
Pechanga chairman Mark Macarro takes the podium to thank campaign workers, consultants, lawyers, media consultants and a handful of tribal members. He gets a big laugh after referring to the tribes' TV ads that ran prominently during Super Bowl breaks — some of the costliest advertising slots in the world: “They saw it, over and over and over again.”
Macarro is hoping California voters, who overwhelmingly approved the four casino expansion measures, will think about the tribes' past rather than the present — in which wealth flowing to the tribes could soon overtake the Las Vegas casino industry and has turned the casino tribes into some of the most feared and powerful lobbying groups in Sacramento.
He talks about how Indian casinos have helped reverse poverty and tribal destruction. “It's not just about the slots,” he says.
MACARRO COMPLAINS that the measures should never have gone to voters, and gets big applause when he says the tribes already had a done deal with California political leaders to expand the casinos.
Later, a tribal member who refuses to talk on the record complains that the San Manuels tribal deal with the state went forward without the voters — and that's not fair. But what really gets his goat is the enforced donations to nongaming tribes — a provision of the ballot propositions that the Pechangas had heavily promoted to voters as proof that they want to help poorer tribes.
But with victory looking nearly certain, the anonymous tribal member disses the sharing provisions, saying that some of the “nongaming” tribes can actually run smallish casinos with 350 slot machines. (By contrast, voters decided on Tuesday that the Agua Caliente, Morongo, Pechanga and Sycuan tribes can expand their huge operations to 25,000 slot machines.)
He also alleges that upstart Augustine, a tribe of one, can conceivably get $1 million a year from the forced sharing of wealth, complaining that no other tribal revenues, from lumber operations or land leases, for instance, ever had to be shared with poorer tribes (but then, lumber and leasing are not exclusive rights granted by California only to Indians, as are casinos).
As a parting shot, he calls the campaign for props. 94-97 a waste of money, saying the only people who profited were lawyers and consultants. Well, not exactly. One of those lawyers, Phil Recht of Mayer, Brown & Platt, says the legal fees are a drop in the bucket. Recht, a longtime lobbyist, says the real expense was TV ads. The tribes, he says, will spend what ever it takes. When asked about Macarro's view that the measures should never have been decided by voters, he says that's academic. “There's never been a ruling on the issue of a ratified compact being subject to a referendum,” but since the tribes won, it's unlikely they'd ask the courts to cut out voters.
Recht didn't mention the people who will profit most — more than 2,000 rich Southern Californians who make up the adult populations of the four tribes on the ballot.
Neither did Brian Brokaw of Acosta |Salazar, a firm that puts out the tribes' message. At the victory party, he's sharp and eager, and says “off the record” before every sentence, even the most innocuous. His boss, Democratic Party media spinner Roger Salazar, checks his BlackBerry obsessively and confers frequently with Fiona Hutton, of Red Gate Communications, which organized the event.
Everyone is all business — except for a tall preppie who turns out to be Nancy Pelosi's nephew. He's almost the only person at the Biltmore having a good time. For a victory party, the vibe is, Thanks California — but not very much.
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