Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Tribes unite to discredit Berkeley lawmaker

An East Bay assemblywoman and state senate candidate says a recent mailer slamming her record on education shows nothing more than an American Indian tribe's vengeance about her opposition to its big casino plans in San Pablo — and even her main rival came to her defense.

Democratic voters in the 9th Senate District recently received a mailer accusing Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, of trying to weaken state academic standards in legislation she sponsored in 2006. Hancock faces off in the June 3 state Senate primary against former Assembly Majority Leader Wilma Chan of Alameda.

But the mailer wasn't paid for by Chan's campaign. It was funded by Education Leaders for High Standards, a new independent expenditure committee created last week explicitly to oppose Hancock. Secretary of state campaign finance records show the committee's initial $49,000 bankroll — nearly all of which went to the mailer — came from one source: the California Tribal Business Alliance independent expenditure political action committee.

That committee, in turn, has received $75,000 each from five out-of-the-area gaming tribes, and another $164,000 from the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians, which runs the San Pablo Lytton Casino, formerly the Casino San Pablo card room.

Hancock was a leading critic of a 2004 compact with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that would have allowed Lytton to vastly expand and operate as many as 5,000 slot machines — Advertisementmore than in any Las Vegas casino — in exchange for a state share of gaming revenue. Under stiff opposition from lawmakers, the tribe ditched the plan and turned to electronic bingo machines that resemble slots but need no state compact.

It marks the first big state campaign spending by a tribe that now draws more than $100 million a year in casino revenue. The mailer slams Hancock's authorship of Assembly bill 2975, which critics said went too far in lowering student proficiency standards to meet federal benchmarks in the No Child Left Behind Act. Schwarzenegger vetoed it.

Doug Elmets, spokesman for both the tribal alliance and Lytton, said the 250-member tribe is interested in education for the sake of its young members. "Clearly, Loni Hancock's record on education is lousy. ... And fiscally speaking, she's probably done more to ruin her district's economy than many elected officials," said Elmets, referring to her opposition to the casino plan.

Hancock defended the bill as a more realistic way for California to deal with the federal benchmarks. She also touted her broader record on education and endorsements from the California Teachers Association, California Federation of Teachers and a raft of local school board members.

"I have spent six years working to bridge the achievement gap and to lower our 30 percent high school dropout rate," she said. "I can understand why tribes that want urban gambling casinos don't want me in the Legislature. But I think they should be honest about why, and not try to deceive people about what they're really doing."

Paul Mitchell, political director for EdVoice, said the education advocacy group supports Chan and gave $10,000 to the new committee, although the contribution did not show up Tuesday in state online filings. Mitchell said Hancock's legislation "was essentially trying to lower the bar."

But Chan, who also is endorsed by several local schools trustees, said in a statement Tuesday that she, too, voted for the bill and is "opposed to this attack on Ms. Hancock." U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a staunch opponent of an expanded Lytton casino, also weighed in Tuesday in Hancock's defense. Voters can expect more to come. On Monday, the tribal political action committee gave another $50,000 to the new committee.

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