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Indian gambling battle brewing

Signature gatherers for petitions to undo casino compacts could face off publicly with foes trying to thwart their efforts.

August 28, 2007|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- A high-stakes political battle may be coming to a shopping center near you.

On one side are a union and a racetrack owner asking people to sign petitions that would undo Indian gambling deals. On the other are Southern California tribes hoping to thwart them by persuading people not to sign -- or to withdraw their names.

The unusual duel could trigger sidewalk confrontations, cause headaches for election officials and heighten tensions as the tribes fight to keep deals worth billions of dollars.

"Someone's going to get hurt," said Mike Arno, a consultant hired by the union and the racetrack firm. "I have seen . . . near-fisticuffs as people argue over these things."

Jacob Mejia, spokesman for the four tribes, said, "We're not looking for confrontation, we're just looking to inform the voters of California. . . . People should have the option to withdraw their names."

The union and the racetrack company are trying to torpedo agreements that four tribes in Riverside and San Diego counties signed with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year. The 23-year deals allow the groups to add 17,000 slot machines to the 8,000 they now operate, in exchange for payments to the state of 15% to 25% of their profits from the additional machines -- possibly hundreds of millions of dollars a year. The Legislature ratified the pacts last month.

The compacts are with the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, which owns casinos in Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage; the Pechanga Band of LuiseƱo Indians in Temecula; the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, which has a casino along Interstate 10 near Banning; and the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation near El Cajon.

Leading the fight to repeal their pacts are Unite-Here, a hotel workers' union, and Bay Meadows Land Co., owner of two of California's five thoroughbred racetracks. The union says the compacts hinder organizing and don't include enough worker protections. Bay Meadows, which owns Hollywood Park in Inglewood and a track near San Francisco, says it has lost customers to tribal casinos.

Their petition drive would put measures on the February presidential primary ballot asking voters to nullify the compacts. Last month they hired Arno Political Consultants of Sacramento to gather nearly 3 million signatures by Oct. 8. in hopes of qualifying four referendums, one per compact. Arno said he pays his petition workers $3 to $5 for a set of four signatures.

Unite-Here and Bay Meadows have found sympathizers in two tribes that also don't like some elements of the latest gambling agreements. The United Auburn Indian Community near Sacramento, which owns one of the nation's most lucrative casinos, and the Pala Band of Mission Indians, whose casino competes with the nearby Pechanga operation, have kicked in $1 million to help fund the petition drive.

The four tribes with the new compacts, meanwhile, have hired Burnside & Associates of Los Angeles, which is advertising for workers "able to block opposition signature gatherers." Workers will also collect signatures from people who want to rescind their names from the petitions on the referendums. The firm is advertising at least 80 positions, with some paying $3,000 to $5,000 a month for full-time work.

What the tribes are doing is bad for the initiative process, Arno said: "It takes a fight and puts it in front of the local market," where signature gatherers like to set up their tables.

The fight should be on the ballot, Arno said: "Let the public decide this."

Tribal leaders are "realists," said Mejia, and do not expect their actions to prevent the referendums from qualifying.

But when voters "find out the truth about these [gambling] agreements," he said, "they will not want to support these misguided referendums."

California allows those who sign initiative petitions to revoke their signatures by submitting a written request to elections officials before the petitions are turned in for validation. The tribes say they will have revocation forms ready where their opponents are gathering petition signatures.

State elections officials say the first organized "blocking" campaign on a statewide initiative that they can recall was in 1992, when the teachers union fought a measure that would have given parents tax money to pay for private schools. Many withdrawal requests were also received in 1994 on a smoking initiative backed by a tobacco company.

County registrars say the tactic is used occasionally on local initiatives, as it was this year in Carson, Montebello and Anaheim.

Stephen Weir, president of a state organization of county elections officials, said an organized, widespread signature-withdrawal campaign on the gambling compacts would force officials into the laborious task of comparing each request for withdrawal against the original petitions. Additional staff would have to be hired, he said.

Rescission campaigns have become contentious issues in other states, including Oklahoma and Florida, said Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, a nonpartisan initiative newsletter. Such campaigns help people realize how much political power they wield, he said, but "obviously it can get out of hand and be unpleasant."

"It seems like everything in politics is getting more and more intense all the time," Winger said.

Arno suggested the Legislature pass a law requiring signature gatherers and their opponents to stay a certain distance apart. "They have a right to go out and say what they want to, and so do we," he said, "but you get to where you're an inch away from each other. . . . I think you've gone too far."

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