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Old Man Coyote Dreams of Slots

Greg Sarris had a simple goal for his tribe: self-reliance. All he needed was a billion dollars.

From a ridge near his $1.5 million home in the Sonoma foothills, Greg Sarris can gaze upon his people's ancestral lands.

The Graton Casino readies for its November 5th opening.

Rohnert Park might seem like a strange place to erect a temple of Vegas glitz. It takes me 20 minutes of U-turns to realize that the downtown I'm looking for doesn't exist. Rohnert Park was a seed that the farm until the early ’60s, when it was turned into a patchwork of orderly suburban subdivisions. Instead of a central community hearth around which the town might gather, there are strip malls and industrial parks.

I drive over to the residential east side of town to meet Chip Worthington, the pastor of a Pentecostal church and the Graton Casino’s most vocal opponent. As founder of the Stop the Casino 101 Coalition, a self-financed group of gadflies that’s been fighting the casino for a decade (including filing a lawsuit against Governor Jerry Brown last year that was recently rejected in Superior Court), Worthington has become locally famous for supplying brash sound bites to reporters. “I’ll take the whole city council out to prime rib if we ever see a dime of money” from casino revenues, he tells me. He is, I think, dead serious.

We sit in a spot of shade in back of the church, and Worthington presents his case: The city is going to get fleeced, the politicians are all corrupt cowards, and the Graton Rancheria largesse is just graft for the county. A lady in a pink bathrobe walks by with her dog, and Worthington asks her what she thinks of the casino. “Not here,” she mumbles. When he starts in about how “gambling is legalized slavery” that will have residents, local college students, and politicians “all addicted,” I can feel a chasm opening in our dialogue—something coming from a deeper place, somewhere epistemological. The question of whether we ought to try and do right by these historically oppressed people—give Indians their own opportunity for self-reliance—seems beside the point to Worthington. He doesn’t see Sarris’s tribe as disenfranchised. To him, as soon as they chose to become casino operators, they crossed a moral threshold. Now they’re the ones doing the disenfranchising.

Before the Graton Indians received their federal restoration, they claimed that they had no intention of opening a casino. In fact, that’s one of the reasons that they received such staunch support from legislators like Feinstein and Woolsey. But once the legislation was passed, the tribe, with Sarris as ringleader, quickly changed tack. Soon they were visited by suitors from Las Vegas, all interested in partnering on a new casino in San Francisco’s backyard. One by one, the gaming moguls came through Sarris’s living room with their pitches: the Maloof brothers, an executive from Harrah’s (now Caesar’s), Steve Wynn, and Frank Fertitta III, CEO of Station Casinos and owner of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. As Sarris laid out his preconditions for a deal—generous revenue sharing with local government, exclusive contracts with labor unions, green construction—he watched each of them walk out as eagerly as they’d come in. Those were not just preconditions, they told him—they were anti-capitalist ideals. Sarris feared that he’d overplayed his hand. Then, just hours after the meeting with Station Casinos, he received a call from Fertitta: They had a deal.

The tribe’s 2003 partnership with Station Casinos gave Sonoma—a county with some of the most prohibitive growth policies in the state— collective arrhythmia. Vociferous concerns about traffic, crime, environmental impacts, zoning controls, and stress on local safety infrastructures began popping up in editorial pages, stump speeches, and the minutes of city council meetings. In the North Bay, where progressive boosterism is a kind of neighborhood blood sport, these concerns often took the form of an ideological outrage that continues to this day. Congressman Jared Huffman, who represents District 2, told me that the casino “contravenes all the urban and land planning that my constituents have been working on for so many years.” There were concerns about the California tiger salamander, an endangered species whose habitat falls within the casino’s footprint. At one point, Stop the Casino 101 released results of a poll it had conducted indicating that 68 percent of the county was opposed to the casino.

But each of those objections fell gradually by the wayside. The main reason: Rohnert Park’s proximity to a population center of 7.15 million people. The grand design of the Graton Casino, which is closer by half to San Francisco than the region’s next largest gaming halls—River Rock in Geyserville, Cache Creek in Yolo County, and Thunder Valley near Roseville—is to lure gamblers from all over the Bay Area. In a statement provided by a Station Casinos spokeswoman, Fertitta said that he had long been “impressed by Sarris’s vision and passion for his tribe and their desire for their self-reliance,” but also acknowledged that the market held “tremendous potential.”

The Graton Resort & Casino stands to make around $300 million a year according to conservative industry estimates; looser prognostications have it as high as $420 million. If neighbors refused to believe for nearly a decade that bucolic, enlightened Sonoma County would ever accede to the uncouth business of a mega-casino, those numbers should have convinced them otherwise. A significant percentage—up to 15 percent—of that haul will go to local municipalities, which have been starved for revenues during the recession. When casino dollars bring a windfall of cash to services like education, public health, and police and fire departments, gaming seems less like a vice and more like a taxable form of entertainment. For the elected leaders of Sonoma County, who were eventually won over by Sarris and his Vegas partners, the attraction of this particular arrangement was impossible to deny.

Page four: "This is about resilience."