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Why Graton is trying to get into gaming

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SONOMA, Calif. - A few weeks ago an overflow crowd flooded a town hall in this picturesque wine country town in response to a town hall meeting sponsored by Sonoma County Supervisor Valerie Brown to address a casino proposal by the 560-member Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria.

A few days after the meeting a draft resolution was proposed by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors that opposes the project, which is slated to provide in addition to the casino a resort spa, tribal offices, and tribal homes.

Normally the only crowding experienced in this town is in the throngs of weekend tourists from the nearby San Francisco Bay area who go to experience the wine, food and historic town that sprang up around the northernmost of the Spanish missions.

Writer Jack London, who was an area resident, borrowed a term for the valley from an alleged old Coast Miwok legend that that called the area the Valley of the Moon, though the legend may have come later with white settlers who falsely attributed it to the tribe. It was so called because - as the legend goes - the tribe, many of whom were situated to the west in the Santa Rosa Valley, said the lunar orb nestled in the valley and seemingly sprung from there when it rose.

Now that same tribe is following the moon and is attempting to acquire 2,000-acres of land in which to nestle their own gaming operation and a public controversy, like the moon, has risen.

The Miwoks are a tribe rich in history and in addition to the famous moon legend, they are also the tribe that greeted Sir Francis Drake in 1579 when he made a landing in what is now Point Reyes National Seashore to the south in Marin County. The Coast Miwok, not to be confused with their relatives the Mountain Miwoks of the Sierra-Nevada Mountains, have, like most California Indians a long and tragic history.

The tribe was eventually reduced to 13 survivors and in the 1950s lost their status as a tribe in the eyes of the federal government. In the last decade the tribe mounted a campaign for re-recognition and this is where the intrigue begins. Since the tribal holdings had shrunk to a single acre near the town of Graton in the western part of Sonoma County the tribe insisted in their re-recognition bid that they were not interested in pursuing gaming.

In fact the federal re-recognition process was initially held up because of a non-gaming clause in a restorative bill authored by Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., that prohibited tribes from gaming. The Senate Indian Affairs committee held up the bill because they feared it would set a dangerous precedent in which tribal sovereignty could be regulated.

In fact, the provision never made it to the Senate's version of the bill because it was decided such a provision would be ultimately unconstitutional.

During this process, tribal chairman Greg Sarris, a noted author, whose books include "Grand Avenue" and "Watermelon Nights" and a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Indian Country Today and other media outlets that gaming was not a possibility for the tribe.

Now the tribe is trying to acquire 2,000 acres of land and have partnered with Station Casinos of Las Vegas. To this end they have used the services of Kenwood Investments to buy out options on the property. One of the partners at Kenwood Investments is attorney Doug Boxer, the son of U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who sponsored the re-recognition bill in the Senate.

Another partner in Kenwood Investments is Darius Anderson, a well-connected lobbyist.

Additionally the tribe's communications are being handled by former Clinton press agent Chris Lehane, who also ran communications for Al Gore's failed 2000 presidential bid.

Opponents of the tribe's plans are no less well connected. Sonoma County Supervisor Brown has a second job for an organization called California Cities for Self-Reliance that the San Francisco Chronicle reports is a "joint powers authority set up by four Los Angeles-area cities to battle Indian casinos that might pull money away from the towns' card rooms." Brown is the co-author of the draft resolution that opposes the project.

This fact is especially significant in light of a high profile lawsuit by the state's card rooms last year that ultimately sought to overturn the ballot propositions that legalized Indian gaming in California. The paper reports that Brown receives $180,000 a year for her work with this organization.

However, Graton Rancheria officials contend that there is no crime in hiring high profile press agents or well-connected investors.

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As for the Boxer connection, Boxer's office points out that Doug Boxer only took the job last year, well after the Senator sponsored the re-recognition bill, that was packaged into an Omnibus bill that was signed by former President Clinton in late 2000. Sen. Boxer also insists that there is no conflict of interest as she believed the tribe would not go into gaming and was surprised by their announcement.

Additionally supporters of Brown say that the card clubs that donate to the organization that Brown moonlights for were not part of a group of Northern California clubs that launched a lawsuit last year that attempted to overturn Proposition 1A, which legalized Indian gaming.

However, those same Los Angeles-area card clubs did file an amicus brief on behalf of an earlier lawsuit that did successfully overturn Proposition 5, the 1998 ballot initiative that was the forerunner to Proposition 1A.

So, how did a small obscure tribe that said they were not interested in opening a casino end up in the middle of a large-scale gaming proposal that has taken on the tones of a political tug of war?

Cheryl Schmit of Stand Up for California, a group that opposes gaming expansion in California, says her group is involved because of opposition from neighbors and points as evidence the hostile tone most of the crowd at the town hall meeting seemed to have toward the casino project.

"No one seems to want this casino," says Schmit.

Schmit claims that Chairman Sarris was merely using a strategy by saying that the tribe would not game. She claims that Sarris only used the non-gaming clause in the original House bill because, as Schmit claims, Sarris knew it would not pass.

Schmit's reasoning is that the bill's trajectory in congress would first take it through the House resource committee, which would pass the bill with the non-gaming clause intact. However, the bill, which was then taken to the U.S. Senate would not pass the muster in the Indian Affairs Committee, which in this case it did not, hence the problems with the non-gaming clause when the bill was actually taken to the Senate.

The point of this lesson in civics is that Schmit is therefore claiming that Sarris had full knowledge of these facts when the non-gaming clause was originally inserted in the bill.

"That is nothing but pure supposition on her part," says Graton chairman Sarris who paints a very different picture of the situation.

Sarris says that the media has launched into a speculative frenzy and dismisses Schmit's claims as "pure fantasy." He blames the BIA for putting pressure on Sen. Daniel Inoyue, D-Hawaii, a veteran Senate Indian Affiars Committee member, to kill the clause and says that he testified before a House committee to keep the non-gaming clause in the bill.

Sarris asserts that the tribe did not intend to go into gaming and says that they had tried every other economic avenue before taking steps for gaming. Since they were only re-recognized, the tribe did not get a line in the federal budget to be eligible for federal funds and instead had to rely solely on the state's revenue sharing trust fund which netted the tribe nearly $550,000.

However, $550,000 does not buy much in pricey Sonoma County, and Sarris maintains that amount would probably only be able to purchase a single home, much less seed money for a business.

Sarris lists the enterprises that he claims the tribe looked into starting. Among them are wine grape vineyards, organic farming, aquaculture and a few other things that he says could not be seeded with the funds that were available.

The tribe then looked to Southern Sonoma County, to an area on the north marshes of San Pablo Bay, near the mouth of the Valley of the Moon, owned by the Hopland Pomo tribe. However, Sarris contends that the land originally belonged to the Miwoks as artifacts of the area attest, and says that since the land was originally Coast Miwok, he thought that the tribe was then entitled to purchase the land for tribal uses.

For now the tribe will have to wait for the BIA to make a decision on the land deal and if that is approved they will have to then still negotiate a compact with the governor's office.