California’s Lytton Band of Pomo Indians may be undertaking a master class in practical politics as tribal leaders seek legislation to move some land into trust.
Leaders have been negotiating among stakeholders, securing bipartisan support, investing in lobbyists and spreading campaign contributions to make their views known.
The Santa Rosa-based Lytton Band is nearer its goal of moving about 511 acres near the Sonoma County town of Windsor into federal trust. For the deal’s supporters – ranging from county supervisors and California Gov. Jerry Brown to Rep. Jeff Denham, a Republican from Turlock – it seems a sure winner.
“It’s in some ways a model,” Rep. Jared Huffman, a Democrat from Santa Rosa who’s the chief author of the legislation in question, said in an interview. “I feel pretty good about the political path forward.”
But to outnumbered opponents, the Lytton Rancheria Homelands Act awaiting action in the U.S. House of Representatives represents politics as usual, and not in a good way.
“We think this is an example of the Lyttons trying to buy their way through Congress,” said Eric Wee, co-director of an advocacy group called Citizens for Windsor. “They’re throwing a lot of money around.”
Wee and other opponents fear that the legislation will enable large-scale development that will disrupt the bucolic nature of Windsor, a town of about 27,000 residents. They fear, as well, that they are simply being out-muscled by the Lytton Band.
Rather than withdraw my legislation as opponents have requested, I feel a sense of urgency to pass the legislation as soon as possible this year.
Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Santa Rosa
Last year, records show, the Lytton Band employed four lobbying firms in the nation’s capital. All told, the tribe paid $560,000 in 2015 to the Washington lobbyists, who included the former chief counsel of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
Recipients of the tribe’s bipartisan campaign contributions over the past several years range from the liberal Huffman and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to the conservative House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield. Last year, for instance, the McCarthy Victory Fund received a whopping $60,000 from the tribe’s casino.
Last December, as well, the tribe contributed $43,400 to the Denham Victory Fund, which then split it between the Stanislaus County Republican Central Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee. In April 2014, the tribe’s casino gave the Stanislaus County Republican committee $10,000.
Last year, the tribe’s casino gave $5,000 to Denham’s separate Jeff PAC.
Denham is one of two co-sponsors of the bill Huffman introduced last May.
“I believe in tribal sovereignty, and more than that I believe in tribal self-determination,” Denham said of the bill, adding, when asked about the contributions, that “I get a lot of support from a lot of different groups.”
Larry Stidham, the tribe’s general counsel, said in an interview that the tribe “certainly likes to work with the senators and the congressmen” who are in a position to move legislation.
“We like to have access,” Stidham said, though he added that the contributions don’t seem to make a difference with regard to the outcome, as it’s “still a long haul.”
The Sonoma County lands bill is not the first time the Lytton Band has sought congressional help. Earlier legislation aided its effort to turn a card room into a casino with over 1,300 gaming machines in San Pablo, California. The casino’s revenues, in turn, helped make possible the purchase of the acreage in Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley for use as a rancheria, or homeland, for the tribe’s 280 members.
Tribal leaders say they will use the land for housing and government facilities, and also will develop a winery and hotel complex. The legislation, embodying a deal negotiated over a number of years, prohibits gaming operations on the property.
“This allows the tribe to live together for the first time in 50 years,” Stidham said
Land held in federal trust is subject to tribal sovereignty and is exempt from local taxation and state laws. Nationwide, the Bureau of Indian Affairs holds 56 million acres in trust, secured either administratively or through legislation.
The Lytton Rancheria bill is only one of several land-into-trust measures sought by California tribes. In early March, McCarthy introduced legislation to take 34 acres of Tulare County land into trust for the Tule River Indian Tribe.
Separate House and Senate bills would take 301 acres in Lassen County into trust for the Susanville Indian Rancheria.
Frequently, these land-into-trust bills unite opposing lawmakers. Denham and Huffman, for instance, agree on the Lytton bill even as they differ sharply on California water issues, while the Lassen County measures were authored by conservative Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, and liberal Democratic California Sen. Barbara Boxer.
The bipartisan support helps. Huffman’s bill was one of 18 measures approved on a voice vote by the Republican-controlled House Natural Resources Committee last month. The package, which includes a bill by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, transferring Tuolumne County land into trust for the Me-Wuk Band, now appears teed up for easy House passage.
“This legislation,” Huffman said at the hearing, “is critical to the interests of both the county of Sonoma and the Lytton tribe.”