Richmond Roulette: Groups go all in on Measure U
By: David Ferry | October 25, 2010 – 3:32 pm | Filed Under: Election 2010, Featured, Front, Government, Point Molate
Environmentalists for the Point Molate casino? Card clubs to reelect mayor Gayle McLaughlin?
The fight over Measure U and the proposed casino at Point Molate has made some strange bedfellows — and the massive sums of money being spent for and against the advisory ballot measure have only complicated the matter further. To date, over $900,000 has been spent on Measure U, which, according to local politicos, could easily make it the most expensive measure in the city’s history.
A non-binding ballot measure that asks Richmond voters whether they’d like to see a casino built at Point Molate, Measure U has pitted powerful, monied interests against one another. Supporting the measure — to the tune of $500,000 — are the developers and tribes behind the proposed Las Vegas-style casino and destination resort. In the other corner are three Bay Area card clubs and a Sacramento area casino tribe, which together have spent at least $420,000 to oppose the measure.
Lumped in the middle are local environmental organizations and the city’s politicians, who have all been caught up in the money swirling around the issue.
“Everybody has their handout on this project, whether it’s the city, the county, or these environmental groups,” said Don Gosney, a supporter of the casino and former chair of the Point Molate restoration advisory board. “After a while you have to say, ‘we can’t even afford to build this place, because we have to pay off all these groups to stand beside us.’”
“An extraordinary deal”
A few weeks ago, Richmond residents got a letter from Dr. Henry Clark, head of the West County Toxics Coalition, a non-profit dedicated to environmental justice. In it, Clark endorsed Measure U for ensuring critical environmental cleanup at Point Molate — an effort the developers will have to undertake, if their plan is approved. The letter went on to praise the developer for bringing jobs and money into Richmond, and for protecting the city’s coast. “That’s why so many environmentalists are strongly supporting Measure U,” he wrote. The word “casino” was nowhere to be found in the mailer.
The letter was a precursor to last week’s news that Citizens for East Shore Parks, a coalition of environmental groups, had settled their yearlong lawsuit against the developers of the proposed casino out of court. Under the deal, the Guidiville Band of Pomo Indians will spend at least $48 million to protect the environment around Point Molate — assuming they win their bid to build a casino.
The heads of both groups said they acted with the environment in mind. Point Molate, a former Naval base, still suffers from serious contamination due to old underground fuel tanks. The developers, in order to get the land ready for a casino, will work with the Navy to expedite the environmental remediation. Clark said that his organization was concerned with environmental cleanup, and that if a casino was the required tradeoff to decontaminate the land, then so be it.
“There are no alternative [cleanup] plans on the table,” Clark said.
“If you don’t want to go to [the casino], don’t go,” he added.
Robert Cheasty, president of CESP, said his coalition couldn’t turn down such an “extraordinary deal” for the environment.
“We believe the city of Richmond will ultimately approve this project and consequently we’ve acted accordingly,” Cheasty said.
Opponents immediately shot back, lambasting the coalitions for “selling their souls.” After CESP’s announcement, Senator Diane Feinstein released a statement coming out against Measure U and the casino. The mayor reiterated her belief that a casino would be a bad deal for Richmond.
Joan Garrett of Citizens for a Sustainable Point Molate noted that all the area’s environmental groups are not behind CESP’s settlement. She also questioned the deal’s timing — less than two weeks before voters decide on Measure U.
“Whenever you see an odd pairing of people or issues, scrape underneath the surface and there’s an agenda under there.” Garret said. “I don’t think this is a statement on environmental approval.”
Andrés Soto, a Richmond planning commissioner opposed to the development, said the settlement was akin to extortion. He pointed out that CESP is not based in Richmond and said the coalition is only concerned with the shoreline.
“What they want to do is basically pimp Richmond’s misery in order to get money for their pet projects,” Soto said.
Cheasty defended the agreement and said the timing was purely coincidental. He said the developers and the tribe had been extremely willing to negotiate, and were working to make the casino as sustainable as possible.
“They’re doing everything you’d want a developer to do on a project,” Cheasty said.
“Mom and pop versus Wal-Mart”
The mayor and her slate of progressive candidates for city council have all vowed not to take money from corporate interests. Combined, McLaughlin, and councilmember candidates Jovanka Beckles and Eduardo Martinez have raised significantly less than Nat Bates, a leading contender for mayor.
But three area card clubs and the tribe that runs the Thunder Valley casino in Auburn are almost single handedly funding a massive campaign to support the progressives. They’ve spent over $400,000 to saturate Richmond with NO ON U mailers, and many of them prominently feature the mayor and her Richmond Progressive Alliance cohorts — all candidates who have vowed to vote against the proposed Point Molate casino.
The RPA makes it clear that the card clubs’ help is entirely unwanted, and that the candidates have not accepted contributions from these organizations. By law, the card clubs and tribe — which spent the money through political action committees — cannot work in concert with a candidate.
“They are not endorsed by us or by the candidate and we would just as soon have no corporate contributions be allowed,” said Mike Parker, who edits the RPA’s newsletter.
That said, opponents can’t help but notice that the card clubs’ independent spending effectively quadruples the RPA’s assets. Ludmyrna Lopez, an incumbent councilmember running for reelection, said it’s hypocritical for the RPA to refuse corporate contributions, but stand by idly while the No on U groups send out mass mail.
“[The card clubs] are sending out hit pieces. I’ve gotten two separate hit pieces on me that were paid for by them.” Lopez said. “I think that [the RPA candidates] are benefiting from their services.”
It’s not as though the card rooms are the only side spending on measure U this year. Winehaven LLC has spent $500,000 to support the measure. Named for the historic building at Point Molate that may eventually house a casino, the LLC lists the same Emeryville address as the casino’s developers. Like the card clubs, it has spent its money on mailers, phone banking and advertising.
For their part, the out-of-town card clubs don’t think they’re out of line for spending big in Richmond’s politics. David Fried, the treasurer for two card club-backed political action committees, said the card rooms are not the Goliath in this fight, noting that the developers have the backing of the Cache Creek casino, which has much deeper pockets.
“All of the card rooms are family owned businesses,” Fried said. “This really is mom and pop versus Wal-Mart.”
“Four years is a long way off”
Despite all the money, the future of Point Molate isn’t really for the voters to decide.
Measure U is only advisory. Regardless of what voters say, the development must still be approved by the Interior Department and the city council. And while the plan’s backers may hope that public support will convince federal officials to approve the project — “They’re going bend over backwards” to look good in the community for the feds, Gosney said — the seven members of Richmond’s city council can vote as they please.
Tom Butt, a councilmember opposed to the casino and not up for reeelection, said he wouldn’t be surprised if some members ignored the people’s decision on U and voted as they liked. With the vote likely to come shortly after the election, Butt said the councilmembers would have a long time to make it up to Richmond’s residents.
“Once the elections are over, these people are in there for four years — four years is a long way off.” Butt said. “They’re not going to suffer any immediate consequences.”
Ane Brice contributed reporting to this article.