In Casino Wars, She's a Player

Times Staff Writer

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."

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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.

Schmit doesn't shirk from preaching to the preacher. "They are a sovereign government and should be treated as such," she advises in characteristically measured tones. "It's just a matter of respect."

The first stop is Barstow First Baptist Church. In a windowless back room with a copy of the Ten Commandments on a wall, Schmit sits opposite two of Barstow's biggest casino backers -- Mayor Lawrence E. Dale and Ron Rector, the city's economic development manager.

Smile in place, Schmit lays right in.

The Los Coyotes Band is "reservation shopping" -- hunting for casino land far from the tribe's ancestral haunts in San Diego County, she says. "This is not what California voters had in mind."

The mayor has a ready answer: "We need economic help. We've got 30% of the population on assistance -- and growing. We need jobs."

Schmit rails about spin-off crime.

Rector counters that Orlando, Fla., home to Disney World, has a higher crime rate than Las Vegas.

"I have to say, I have never heard Disneyland and casinos compared," Schmit retorts.

Back and forth the debate rages, for half an hour. Finally, Mayor Dale throws up his hands.

"We are resolved to do this," he says. "And we do look forward to doing the best we can."

The city officials depart, unconverted.

This debate is a draw, but the Baptist pastor, Jeff Kennedy, declares himself impressed by Schmit.

"She much more than held her own," he says. "It's not like we brought in some evangelist to shoot his mouth off."

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When Schmit took on the casino proposed in Penryn, her husband called it the elephant on the front porch. Now he has reached a new conclusion: The elephant has moved into the house.

Back then, she knew nothing about casinos or Indian law. "We all had this huge learning curve," said Patty Neifer, co-director at Stand Up for California during the early years. "She just took it so much further than any of us."

John Hensley, former state Gambling Control Commission chairman, remembers Schmit's first appearance before his board in 2000. Green eyes framed by high cheekbones, she marched to the podium and basically took on everyone in the room, he recalled. "I was a little put off."

But the activist kept coming back, and eventually won him over, Hensley said. "She had no hidden agendas."

The early battles taught Schmit the value of negotiation and compromise. Initially anti-gambling, Stand Up for California evolved. Schmit's main goal now is to curb expansion of Indian gambling and ensure that tribes pay back local communities for police and fire protection, road expenses and other spillover from the casinos.

That stand rankles some national anti-gambling activists. Schmit too often advocates a quick bargain with a tribe instead of a brawl, said Barbara Lindsay of United Property Owners, a Washington state group that frequently jousts with casino tribes around the country. "Let's make a deal is her middle name."

But others contend that Schmit is simply pragmatic, accepting that some casino tribes prove to be good neighbors and some don't. Fred Jones, an attorney with the California Coalition Against Gambling Expansion and a Schmit admirer, said she applies an old notion when dealing with a tribe: Don't let perfect be the enemy of good.

Allies say Schmit possesses a tenacious devotion to the cause, a wonk's recollection of regulatory detail. One Indian leader complained that Schmit enjoyed better access than the tribe to Gov. Gray Davis' office, despite the hefty campaign donations from the Indians. Some state bureaucrats turn to her as a trusted resource with a real-world grasp of California's gambling landscape.

Name a working Indian casino or a wannabe gambling tribe anywhere in the state, and Schmit has almost certainly weighed in: Fort Mojave and Cotati and Marysville and Plymouth and a couple of dozen more.

In the foothills east of San Diego, Bob Coffin and his neighbors asked Schmit to help fight the Barona tribe. She gained residents an audience in the statehouse. And something more.

"She provided hope," said Coffin, whose group is now trying to negotiate with the tribe. "Without her we would still be a voice in the wilderness, unorganized and powerless."

Not everyone, of course, is sold on Schmit.

Richard Milanovich, chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, considers Schmit a "worthy opponent" but has grown convinced that she is a facade for a bigger operation underwritten by tribal foes. "I find it hard to believe it's just her at home typing all this stuff up."

Up in Sonoma County, a wine country bastion more accustomed to grapes than gambling, the Rev. Chip Worthington says Schmit turned belly up in the battle against an Indian casino proposed beside Rohnert Park.

Instead of whipping up the troops, Schmit pushed for negotiations with the tribe, Worthington said. "It's like she wants to pacify the fighting spirit."

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To get inside the mind of Cheryl Schmit, look inside her computer. Her e-mail output is exhausting, as many as a dozen messages and press clippings a day, dispatched to more than 500 people -- attorneys and academics, lawmakers and reporters, even a few tribal leaders.

Schmit insists that she toils alone, but doesn't deny that her efforts are oiled by tribal rivals. In the Schmit battle plan, the enemy of her enemy is her friend.

Since 2001, she has moonlighted as a $4,500-a-month consultant for a former state lawmaker hired by a coalition of Los Angeles County cities with card clubs losing business to tribal casinos.

Her union connection dates from the 1998 initiative fight over Indian casinos. Stand Up for California collected a $10,000 donation from the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, which feared the tribes would shut out organized labor. She remains friendly with the union's state political director, Jack Gribbon.

The same year, she stepped down from her nonprofit for a month and collected $20,000 to fight the casino ballot measure for a political action group backed by Nevada gambling interests.

Gary Koval, an attorney for the Twentynine Palms Band of Mission Indians, said "the prevailing feeling around Indian Country is that she's a racist, masquerading as this citizen activist while running around on trips funded by the card clubs and unions."

If she is a front, Schmit said, "I am a front for a multitude of do-gooders." A few friendly attorneys help her with legal issues, Schmit said, and she trades tips with casino foes around the state.

Her paid consulting work is merely an extension of the assistance that she provides for free, Schmit said. She doesn't take a salary at Stand Up for California, which operates on about $7,000 a year in donations. Her friend Neifer said: "She's just a giving person who certainly isn't getting rich off this."

As for racism, friends say that it's nonsense, that, if anything, Schmit takes pains to distance herself from wrong-way allies. In 1998, she broke ties with a Stand Up for California leader in neighboring El Dorado County who had been arrested for throwing nails on the road to a tribal casino.

Another frequent allegation is that Schmit has a secret alliance with Howard Dickstein, a prominent attorney who represents several Northern California Indian tribes.

Tribes represented by Dickstein have angered some peers by forging revenue-sharing pacts with local municipalities, including a $100-million deal Yolo County struck last year with a wealthy casino tribe.

Schmit and Dickstein denied any connection, though both admit to mutual respect. The attorney considers her a straight shooter who "doesn't see all tribes the same or everything in black and white."

As casinos proliferate and calls for help multiply, Schmit's expertise is in demand as never before. But the years have worn on her.

Try as she may, the tribes almost always win. Feuds with activists have drained her. Schmit's husband and her two sons, now grown, put up with her hunkered for hours in the office.

It would be so much easier, she admits, to give it all up.

What keeps her coming back is the same feeling Schmit had the first go-round.

With one difference, she said. "Now my neighborhood has grown to the size of the state."

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Times staff writer Glenn F. Bunting contributed to this report.

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