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California and the West

Prop. 5 Pitchman Has Starring Role

Campaign: Mark Macarro is charming, articulate and part Indian, and even opponents admit the measure couldn't have found a better spokesman.


For all the TV air time he's getting this political season, one might think Mark Macarro was running for public office.

He has received more exposure talking to voters through television commercials than gubernatorial hopefuls Dan Lungren and Gray Davis or Senate candidates Barbara Boxer and Matt Fong. Maybe more than all of them combined, analysts say.

But Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga Tribal Council in southern Riverside County, isn't running for anything. He was asked by other tribal leaders in California to serve as their television pitchman for Proposition 5, the Indian casino initiative on the Nov. 3 ballot.

By most everyone's assessment, Macarro was a natural for the job.

He's handsome, articulate, charming, warm, passionate--and, yes, part Indian. Who better to look square into the camera--TelePrompTer notwithstanding--and present the message that Indians need support?

He has lost track of how many advertisements he has taped--a dozen, he believes, including a 15-minute infomercial. Backers of Proposition 5 have so far spent $46.6 million, much of it on television advertising that brings Macarro's face into living rooms around the state multiple times every day.

"He's up there in Al Checchi country," said Wayne Johnson, a political consultant who is aiding the No-on-5 campaign, referring to the wealthy--and unsuccessful--Democratic gubernatorial candidate in this year's June primary.

Other opponents of Proposition 5 fault the content of Macarro's message--but even they acknowledge that the Yes-on-5 side struck gold in making Macarro its spokesman.

"If I wanted someone out of Central Casting, I'd want him," said Stan McGarr, secretary of the nearby Pala Indian tribe, which opposes Proposition 5. "He's an effective spokesman. He has appeal, the look of honesty, that what he says is the truth--whether it is or not. He's believable, even though I don't believe him."

Republican political media strategist Don Sipple said tapping Macarro to promote Proposition 5 was "sheer brilliance"--partly because Macarro is not out of Central Casting, but is the genuine article.

"They couldn't have found a better spokesperson," said Sipple, who has run campaigns for Gov. Pete Wilson and Texas Gov. George W. Bush Jr. "With him, they have put a human face on the issue."

'It's More Than I Bargained For'

The initiative asks voters to allow tribes to maintain and expand the kinds of reservation casinos they operate now, with little state oversight. Opponents contend that Proposition 5 would allow for the spread of unregulated gambling halls in California and will face court challenge over the kinds of slot machines the Indians operate.

Eleven tribes, meanwhile, have signed compacts with Wilson that define conditions relating to financial management, employee and customer protections, environmental conditions and the number and type of gambling machines they can operate, among other issues.

Macarro, 35, who almost became a naval aviator but washed out because of his diminutive size, is sheepish about his newfound celebrity. He finds himself stopped at airports and grocery stores.

"It's unsettling," said Macarro, who is married and the father of two young children. "It's more than I bargained for when I agreed to help. I'd rather have remained a no-name nobody."

Macarro, who is paid $41,600 a year as tribal chairman, said he has no intention of running for elected office off the reservation, partly because he is cynical about the political process.

"The campaign office received a phone call saying I should run for governor," Macarro said, laughing. "And politicians have told me that name recognition is everything, and I've got it. But, no. Politics is a grind, and it's short-term. You do what you have to do to get elected or reelected."

That kind of political cycle, he worries, results in vision that comes in two-year chunks.

"When we talk as Indian people about improving ourselves, we're not talking about through the next election," he said. "We're talking about future generations."

Macarro was raised in the working class San Bernardino County town of Colton, the oldest of four children of working parents. His lineage as a Pechanga Indian traces through his father's side.

His father, Leslie Macarro, worked as a barber, and a landscape laborer for the old state Division of Highways. He later became a correctional peace officer assigned to a state youth authority facility in Chino.

He was killed on the job in 1988 when he was struck by a car while chasing a prisoner who fled from the jail bus at the County-USC Medical Center.

By then, the younger Macarro had graduated from high school, where he played baseball and the trombone in the school's marching band--performing twice in the Rose Parade. He attended a local community college, then was accepted to UC Santa Barbara, his tuition, room and board paid by his parents, student loans and a $1,500-per-semester grant from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

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