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THE STATE | COLUMN ONE

In Casino Wars, She's a Player

When the state's tribes seek new gambling sites, there to fight them is Cheryl Schmit. Allies praise her savvy. Indians see hidden motives.

November 03, 2003|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

PENRYN, Calif. — She never saw it coming, Cheryl Schmit says; never figured life would take this turn.

Schmit happily defined herself as a wife and mother, shuttling her sons to soccer practice and school, watching over the family's pastoral two acres in this foothill hamlet up the interstate from Sacramento.

But one day in 1996 an Indian tribe proposed a casino not a mile from her home. Fearing that it would smother community character, Schmit joined other residents to battle the tribe, which eventually abandoned Penryn for an industrial park on the other side of the county.

The controversy stopped right there for most of her neighbors. For Schmit, it was just beginning.

With tribal casinos sprouting around the state, her telephone wouldn't stop ringing. One fearful community after another needed advice. Schmit, who rose fast in the anti-gambling ranks, had answers. "I couldn't say no," she said. "It just mushroomed."

Now this accidental activist has fashioned a full-time career as California's go-to Indian casino fighter, a one-woman whirlwind buffeting the state's powerful, $5-billion tribal gambling industry.

Schmit's war room is the bedroom that has been turned into an office for her nonprofit, Stand Up for California. The onetime grade-school librarian digs into Indian law, tutors far-flung residents on grass-roots activism and churns out e-mails detailing the latest casino fight. Friends compare her with environmental firebrand Erin Brockovich. Foes liken her to the Wicked Witch of the West.

Some allies hope she gets a post with Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, who campaigned on a vow to make Indian gambling pay more to the state.

Schmit, 53, is certainly no stranger to the halls of government, having dashed down the highway to lobby Sacramento lawmakers and jetted cross-country to knock on doors in Washington.

But she has been most effective on the front lines. Time and again she has hit hot spots in the state's casino wars, stepping up to deliver a town hall pitch to the latest band of rattled citizens. Joe Green, a Barstow pastor fighting a casino proposed for the desert city, calls her "a velvet pit bull."

In Schmit's lexicon, "fundamentalist tribal leaders" armed with an antique notion of sovereignty and huge gambling profits are wielding undue influence in Sacramento, pouring $130 million into campaigns in the last half-dozen years -- including $10 million in the recent recall election. Their ultimate goal, Schmit warns, is to seize control of California public policy and retake lands lost more than a century ago.

Such accusations are racially tinged scare tactics, said Frances Snyder of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, one of 53 tribes now operating casinos in California. "She tries to create this mass hysteria, as if we're out to conquer the world."

Many tribal leaders scoff at Schmit's soccer-mom persona, saying it masks conflicts of interest. As she fights tribal gaming, they note, Schmit also works as a paid consultant for another arm of the gambling world -- several Southland cities with card clubs hurt by the proliferation of Indian casinos. She has past ties with other tribal foes, including Nevada gambling interests and a labor union angling to organize reservation casino workers.

Her tribal critics can't hide their ire. A Native American Web site posted a picture from "The Wizard of Oz" of the Wicked Witch of the West astride her broom, above the caption: "... Cheryl Schmit prepares to take off on another anti-Indian crusade." At an Indian convention this year, the crowd erupted when a speaker suggested that Schmit and Stand Up for California should "sit down and shut up." It has, after all, been five years since California approved expanded Indian gambling, tribal leaders say. Casinos are part of the landscape. The fight is over.

But what remains, says Schmidt, is the fallout -- the effects of casino developments on the environment, on police and other government services, on traffic and on community character.

That, she said, "is the whole new battle."

*

The temperature rises toward 105 degrees in the broad, sage-specked bowl that holds Barstow. Like a cruise missile, Schmit is flying low. She is in the front passenger seat of the Rev. Charles Mattix's minivan. The Rev. Joe Green and Mattix's wife, Marilyn, sit in back.

Mattix points south of the highway to a slab of land where the Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeno Indians want to build a destination resort and casino.

Where the tribe pictures economic deliverance, the ministers envision neon lights and moral compromise. Green murmurs, "Some welcome to Barstow that will be."

A welcome isn't what Mattix has planned if tribal leaders show at tonight's public meeting. The clergyman doesn't want to honor anyone who would dump "something this devastating" on his town.

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