Commentary: Boxer's green image might take hit from old casino bill

Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee. (Sacramento Bee/MCT)
Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee. (Sacramento Bee/MCT)

In the national battleground that is California's U.S. Senate race, weighty issues dominate, like jobs, economic dislocation and California's future, and rightly so.

But sometimes, a politician's seemingly minor actions taken long ago end up having the biggest impact on our lives.

Often, those are the ones politicians would prefer that we forget, like legislation Sen. Barbara Boxer pushed a decade ago that could bring a casino-resort to her electoral backyard, Sonoma County.

On the stump and in debates, Boxer counters Republican challenger Carly Fiorina's charge that she has been a do-nothing senator by pointing to "a thousand Boxer provisions," laws that bear her stamp.

Boxer, seeking her fourth term, displays more than 100 of them on her campaign website. The list is heavy on environmental legislation, detailing how she helped set aside a million acres as wilderness and secured hundreds of millions of dollars for flood control, water and mass transit projects.

But that list omits the Graton Rancheria Restoration Act. Signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000, Boxer's bill restored sovereign rights to a few hundred Miwok and Pomo Indians in the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria.

On Oct. 1, the tribe reached a milestone, albeit without public fanfare. The U.S. Department of Interior took 254 acres into trust, essentially creating a new reservation for Federated Indians directly off Highway 101 south of the Sonoma County city of Rohnert Park – prime land for a Las Vegas-style casino.

Boxer prides herself on being a strong environmentalist, having won endorsements from all the environmentalist groups that count. She blasts Fiorina for supporting offshore oil drilling and embracing Proposition 23, which would suspend California's climate change law.

There is an inconsistency in Boxer's otherwise green record. State environmental laws do not apply on Indian reservations. And a casino off Highway 101 abutting Rohnert Park, a city of about 40,000 people, certainly would have an impact. Water supplies are short in Sonoma County, and casino customers would further clog Highway 101, the Redwood Highway.

"This is going to have a profound adverse impact throughout my district," Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, told me.

Boxer seemed uncomfortable when asked about the Graton legislation during her stop at The Bee last month as she sought the paper's endorsement.

She has reason to be uncomfortable.

Her son, Oakland attorney Douglas Boxer, became involved in the casino project in 2001, the year after she pushed through the bill granting recognition to the tribe.

In a rather convoluted manner, Boxer said: "I can't talk about any developments because my son was a lawyer who was part of some consultant that was somehow related to this."

I'll try to parse that.

"Some consultant" would be Darius Anderson. For more than a decade, Anderson has been one of Sacramento's top lobbyists. He also lobbies in Washington, D.C.

"Somehow related to this" means that Anderson represents Station Casinos, the Las Vegas casino corporation that is Graton's management partner.

Anderson also is a developer, and Doug Boxer used to work with him, specifically on the Graton deal. The son and the lobbyist-developer remain partners in a limited liability corporation that would profit if Graton were to open a casino, Boxer campaign spokesman Matthew Kagen told me.

Boxer continued, in her disjointed way:

"That tribe has very long ties to Marin-Sonoma, and my position on Indian tribes has always been that if they have a longtime ancestral connection to the land that I would support them getting recognition."

In 2000, Graton's chairman, Gregory Sarris, had testified before Congress that the tribe had no plans to enter the casino business. Rep. Lynn Woolsey, the Democrat who represents Sonoma County, happily carried the legislation to restore Graton, on condition that the tribe would not enter into the casino business.

Once the bill reached the Senate, Boxer took control. She didn't have a choice if the tribe was to gain recognition.

As she told it, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, the chairman of the committee with oversight of Indian affairs, said "no one would ever agree to any tribe getting recognition if you put conditions on it because they are a separate nation, according to the Constitution."

"So any bill that had any kind of prohibition on anything, that you could not have a dance club, you can't have a racetrack, or you can't have gambling, they wouldn't have been able to get their recognition."

In other words, a Hawaii senator told a California senator how to write legislation affecting a tribe in California.

As he tries to undo what Boxer did a decade ago, Assemblyman Huffman turns to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein to intervene, not Boxer.

"Senator Feinstein has shown much more interest in reforming this scourge of urban casinos," Huffman said.

Odds are against him.

As long as a tribe has land, there is little lawmakers can do to stop them from developing a casino. The next governor almost surely will negotiate a compact with Graton setting forth terms for whatever gambling is permitted on the land.

Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman have not said how they would handle tribes' requests for casino compacts. But money speaks loudly in politics, and it is saying Brown and Whitman would be open to deals.

Graton is not a campaign donor. But other tribes have given $800,000 to Brown and $193,000 to Whitman. Boxer has collected $130,000 from tribes since 2009.

Huffman, meanwhile, introduced a bill last year to require governors to consider local opposition to proposed casinos before approving new compacts. The bill died without a hearing. Anderson lobbied against the bill on behalf of his client Station Casinos, Graton's partner in the Rohnert Park casino project.

Despite it all, Huffman plans to vote for Boxer.

"I would regard this as an anomaly," Huffman said of Boxer's action a decade ago. "And she is running against Cruella De Vil."

When Boxer was in the House, she represented Marin and Sonoma counties. When she returns to her home turf, Boxer will emphasize her A-rating from the environmental groups and repeat her charges that Fiorina shipped jobs offshore when she was a CEO.

Most North Bay Democrats will follow Huffman's lead and vote for Boxer. But before the next six-year Senate term is up, they'll likely be living with a casino off Highway 101, thanks to a bill Boxer would rather they forget.

Candidate Boxer talks about her understanding of the inner workings of the Senate. Certainly, she is experienced. But part of being experienced is understanding the nature of the deal. As old gamblers sometimes say, trust everyone, but cut the cards. Boxer apparently neglected that detail.