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Critics have long complained that Lucky Chances runs the town, not the other way around. That impression has been bolstered by years of rulings consistently favorable to the casino by Colma's elected officials. "What the casino wants, the casino gets," says retired longshoreman Lee Marsigli, a casino opponent.
Others, including Colma's current mayor, Frossanna (Fro) Vallerga, who came on the City Council in 1995, don't see it that way. "The casino has done a lot for Colma," she insists. "Any successful business is going to have people who are resentful of that success."
Nearly one-third of Colma's $14 million budget comes from the casino and Colma's coffers have long overflowed owing in no small part to the tax largess the card club throws off. Its residents pay nothing for basic cable television. The town heavily subsidizes summer camps to Hawaii and elsewhere for its kids. For a time, it even offered box seats to 49ers home games for the asking, on a first-come basis. The town's residential streets and sidewalks are paved with bricks, its utilities like the occupants of its graves are all underground, and its glimmering new police station is the envy of communities many times its size.
The same is true for the town's museum in an old cemetery office that Colma spent $3 million to renovate, as well as for a $2.5 million community center next door. "Without the casino, I doubt we'd have all this," says Pat Hatfield, who runs the museum. She describes Medina as "a mystery man," adding, "People in town certainly know him by name, but I don't know how many would actually recognize him if they saw him."
But even if many Colma residents wouldn't recognize Medina on the street, they have long felt his influence over the town's politics.
After a 1993 referendum approving a club in concept passed by a mere eight votes, Medina defeated other applicants for the franchise by plying Colma residents with free bus trips to Reno, Bay Area card rooms, and even the Monterey Bay Aquarium. His plans survived a 1996 referendum to undo the 1993 vote, as well as an unsuccessful attempt the following year to recall four of the five City Council members deemed to be in his corner.
And then there was a bizarre City Council meeting in late 1994. Medina had won the franchise the previous spring conditioned on his obtaining a card room license from the state by Jan. 1, 1995. But when it became clear that the permit wouldn't be issued in time, the City Council (already minus one of its five members who had recently died) met in an urgent session two days before the deadline to head off a crisis.
After two of the council members recused themselves, citing conflicts of interest, city attorney Roger Peters amid wrangling from lawyers for other card room applicants took the unusual step of declaring one of the two recused members present for the sake of a quorum. Thus a minority of just two elected officials one of them Blum cast a pivotal vote to keep Medina's card room on track.
"There's long been an unholy alliance between Colma politicians and that card club and I think the current investigation bears that out," says Fred Jones, who heads the California Coalition Against Gambling Expansion, an anti-gaming group.
Others put it more bluntly.
"Medina promoted a card room in other towns on the Peninsula and didn't get anywhere," says attorney Michael Montgomery, who once represented a rival applicant for the Colma franchise. "In Colma, he finally found a place small enough to buy his way into."
Even before becoming Colma's casino kingpin, Renato Mendoza (Rene) Medina made a name for himself in other ways. Born and raised in a poor, outlying Philippine province, he worked his way through college in Manila, studying accounting, and immigrated to the United States in 1971 with little money, friends say.
Ironically considering his current legal woes one of his first jobs in San Francisco was as a printing clerk at the U.S. Attorney's Office. "Rene was on the bashful side; he sort of kept to himself," recalls Rod Blonien, an assistant U.S. attorney at the time. As a prominent Sacramento lobbyist whose clients include some of the state's biggest card clubs, Blonien now works for Medina.
At the U.S. Attorney's Office, and later, as a data processor at Bechtel Corporation, Medina earned a reputation as a hard worker bent on achieving the American dream. After a trip to Nevada he came up with the idea of providing bus transportation geared to Bay Area Asian-American gamblers heading to Reno. To attract his first patrons, he and his wife used a phone book to make cold calls to everyone they could find with a Filipino-sounding surname.
The result was Lucky Tours, which began with a single bus leased from Greyhound. By the early '80s, after the last of his three sons was born, Medina bought a bus of his own. He was its driver. (The company, which operates a fleet of more than two dozen buses and limousines, long ago expanded to include a full-scale travel agency focused on the Philippines.) Later that same decade Medina struck gold again with Lucky Money, a currency remittance business catering to Pacific Rim clients. Like Lucky Tours, it is run from offices on Mission Street.