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Casino compact puts North Bay legislators on the spot

Political pressure is building on North Coast lawmakers to reject casino gaming compact

This field at the corner of Labath Avenue and Wilfred Avenue in Rohnert Park is the site of the planned casino.

Crista Jeremiason / PD
Published: Wednesday, April 18, 2012 at 8:15 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 18, 2012 at 8:15 a.m.

Political pressure is building on North Coast lawmakers to reject a gaming compact that would give the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria the right to open a Las Vegas-style casino in Rohnert Park.

The project also has become a hot-button campaign issue, particularly in the race for the newly-created 10th Assembly seat in Marin and Sonoma counties being sought by Assemblyman Michael Allen.

The Petaluma City Council on Monday night voted unanimously to ask North Bay legislators to vote against ratifying the compact, asserting the deal doesn't take into account traffic and water problems the casino-hotel complex could create.

Casino opponents said they will be seeking similar votes of support in coming weeks.

Several lawmakers expressed reservations about the proposed 3,000-slot casino on Tuesday, including Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who said that the “compact should be sent back and it should be rejected.”

But Sen. Mark Leno, whose district includes Rohnert Park, said he intends to vote for the deal.

“I'm well aware that this has been controversial over many years, but with the governor having finalized the contract and with the issues that have concerned me being addressed, I'm prepared to support it,” Leno said.

State lawmakers are believed to have approved all but one of the gaming compacts that have come before them for ratification. The federal Department of the Interior also must approve the deal.

But lingering concerns about the Rohnert Park casino project's impact on the region as well as possible opposition to the plans on the part of other Indian tribes has cast some doubt on its approval.

“Tribes are powerful political players in California and have been for a decade or two on any issue that might affect their futures,” said Howard Dickstein, a Sacramento attorney and an expert in Indian casino politics.

Most North Coast lawmakers surveyed this week said they needed more time to study the casino project before they decide how to vote. Huffman was the only lawmaker to express unequivocal opposition to the proposal, which he said “is being jammed into a congested urban community without any community input whatsoever.”

Allen refused several requests to be interviewed about the subject this week. Instead, he issued a statement stating that he has to take feedback from stakeholders “before I make a decision as to what I will ultimately do.”

Allen is seeking a second term in office in the newly-drawn 10th Assembly district that encompasses Marin and southern Sonoma County.

His main opponent in the race, San Rafael City Councilman Marc Levine, on Tuesday accused Allen of ducking questions about the casino, saying Allen “clearly does not want to have his long history of support for the casino to be tied to him now that he's moved into this district.”

Levine's campaign provided The Press Democrat with a copy of what they said was a screen shot of a web site that appears to list Allen on the advisory board of the Friends of the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria in 2008 when Allen was president of the North Bay Labor Council.

Lynn Cominsky, a professor at Sonoma State University and a former member of that group, said Tuesday that she has no record of Allen ever participating in the organization's meetings. She said the group did not meet at all in 2008 and that it was disbanded last year.

Greg Sarris, tribal chairman of the Graton Rancheria, refused comment Tuesday and later had his Oakland attorney contact a reporter to tell him to never call Sarris' personal cell phone again.

Some capitol observers have speculated that Democratic Party leaders don't want to schedule a vote on the Rohnert Park gaming compact until after the June 5 primary so that Allen can't be tied to a vote on the project and possibly damage his bid for re-election.

But Brian Sobel, a Petaluma-based political consultant who is supporting Levine, downplayed the notion that campaign politics will influence when the Legislature votes on the compact.

“I'd be surprised if it was held up past the election based on politics purely,” Sobel said. “The greater issue is how this particular compact is viewed alongside other compacts that have been negotiated with the state of California.”

The compact is the first to require that a tribe and local governments reach agreements to address the casino's impacts in open-ended ways not tied solely to construction of the project and to problem gambling. That gives the county and Rohnert Park room to negotiate substantially greater financial concessions in the future.

Some tribes have said they will oppose the deal because they believe it relinquishes some tribal sovereignty, allows local governments too much control and gives up more profits to surrounding jurisdictions.

To date, Allen has received $18,800 in campaign contributions from California tribes in his bid for re-election. That includes a $1,000 donation from the Graton Rancheria, state finance records show.

Prior to being elected to the Assembly in 2010, Allen went before the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on at least two occasions to lobby in favor of the casino project, which he said would result in jobs at living wages.

Levine, whose campaign contributions include a $3,900 donation from the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, said he generally supports tribal gaming. But he said his opposition to the Rohnert Park project is because of the impact he said it will have on Highway 101 traffic and on groundwater supplies.

Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata, issued a statement on Tuesday noting that he hasn't decided whether to support the compact and that he has concerns about the project's impact on traffic.

Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, also said she's not taken a position on the casino.

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