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As it turned out, Lytton's alliance with the union was perhaps its most blessed political move. The tribe could not know it at the time, but HERE -- one of the most powerful pro-gaming voices in Congress -- would later prove to be one of Lytton's strongest political proponents.
"It was a series of smart chess moves," Katz says. "At the time, it was a pretty big concession, but it was one of the most pivotal political decisions we made."
Early last year, in the name of her tribe, Margie Mejia did something she absolutely detests, something that transforms her from a practical, steadfast tribal leader into a nervous and difficult person. Mejia got on a plane.
Though Mejia usually drives to meetings, logging 80,000 miles last year alone, she had to fly to Washington, D.C., for perhaps the toughest hurdle the tribe had yet faced. Before the tribe could legally operate slot machines and blackjack tables at the Casino San Pablo, the government had to declare that the casino was on sovereign Indian territory, a common process called "taking land into trust."
Taking land into trust usually involves submitting an application to the Department of the Interior. But for Lytton, the process was far more complicated.
Federal laws state that Indian tribes can only run casinos on land acquired before 1988. The government, however, recognizes that some tribes, like Lytton, have had their land taken away, so some exceptions exist.
To get an exception, Lytton had two choices: 1) go through a drawn-out bureaucratic review -- a process that could take up to 10 years, or 2) ask the Interior Department for an administrative exception to the 1988 rule, a faster but more difficult process.
Lytton decided to do both. So Mejia flew to Washington to make the case for an administrative exception, a flight made all the more torturous because her fear of flying was compounded by her nervousness about her meeting with the Interior Department.
Mejia's presentation was moving and impressive, says Kevin Gover, the assistant secretary of Interior at the time. "They had good documentation of the things they talked about, they were forthcoming about information," Gover says. "They had me convinced that I should help them, but they never convinced me that I could." The department turned Lytton down.
Undeterred, the Lytton delegation returned to California and asked Congressman Miller's office for help in researching legal and technical arguments to appeal their case.
Throughout Lytton's dealings with Interior, Congressman Miller's office helped the tribe navigate the process through a steady stream of phone calls and faxes. Miller's support had been cultivated through a December 1999 meeting, at which HERE and the city of San Pablo pledged their support for the casino.
HERE and San Pablo met with Miller a few more times to show that there was "widespread support" for Lytton's casino. It was not difficult for HERE to get Miller's attention: The union donated $10,000 to Miller in the 1999-2000 congressional session, one of his largest contributions that year -- and has long-standing ties with the congressman. Miller could not ignore the fact that two of his heavyweight constituents -- a city in his district and HERE -- were acting as political big brothers for Lytton.
The power of HERE, particularly, cannot be underestimated. HERE and some of its local chapters make consistent and generous donations to many politicians, and they have amassed considerable political influence. But the union has also been the subject of a recent federal investigation into alleged mob ties. In 1995, the federal government filed a racketeering lawsuit against the union and spent five years monitoring HERE for possible corruption. The suit was dismissed in 2000 after the government removed union leadership linked with organized crime.
Members of HERE's reform group, who testified against the union in the federal lawsuit, say the new officers have provided a "new wave of cleanliness," but Carl Biers of the Association for Union Democracy says the federal monitoring has done nothing to prevent organized crime from creeping back in.
"There are a number of decent and fair locals, but it's a conceivable situation where the local is not corrupt but they are being prodded into deals by the international," he says.
The government's corruption oversight does not interfere with a union's ability to represent its members in Miller's district, insists the congressman's chief of staff, Danny Weiss. "HERE, on behalf of working people, supports the agenda of Congressman Miller in Congress, and monitorship has no effect on that," he says.
But even with Miller's support, the tribe hit a dead end with Interior. Then-Assistant Secretary Gover says he was sympathetic, but he couldn't reconsider Lytton's case. The only other way they could get around the lengthy review process, he told them, was by a special act of Congress.
Investor Katz was incredulous. "I sort of laughed," he says. "How do you possibly get [an act of Congress] done? A lot of times during this process, I thought to myself, "What am I doing and how do I get out of it?'"
It seemed that Lytton would simply have to swallow hard and wait. But the tribe was about to see its fortunes change in more ways than one.