In the coming weeks, Gov. Jerry Brown will decide whether two Indian tribes in remote parts of California can build gambling establishments next to freeways many miles from their homes.
The questions he faces put him at the center of a big-money casino fight a massive lobbying effort in the Capitol that includes some very rich and influential groups.
The proposals from the Enterprise Rancheria near Marysville and the North Fork Rancheria near Fresno are part of the growing phenomenon critics describe as off-reservation casinos. But they are unusual because approval is in the hands of the governor under a process that's been used only a few times nationwide.
Most Indian casinos are on either tribal land or land restored to a tribe by the federal government, leaving state politicians out of the equation.
The Enterprise and North Fork proposals are subject to a different bureaucratic process because they don't necessarily fit those criteria tribal members already have land but want to build casinos somewhere else.
Their projects have been given the green light by the U.S. Interior Department. Now Brown has until Aug. 31 to decide whether they can move ahead.
"It's a political question at that point," said Cathy Christian, an expert in tribal law who is not involved in these cases.
Moving the decision-making to the governor could mark a shift in tribes' strategy to get gambling projects approved, Christian said. And it has prompted major activity in the Capitol lobbying corps.
The North Fork and Enterprise tribes are backed by a Las Vegas casino owner, a Chicago racetrack developer, several construction unions, one lobbyist who is a Democratic fundraiser and another whose relationship with Brown goes back to the 1970s.
They argue that each tribe North Fork is a band of Mono Indians; Enterprise is part of the Maidu tribe historically moved around a large area that includes their current rancheria in the mountains and the proposed casino location on the valley floor.
Casino supporters say the projects will bring self-sufficiency to Indians who have lived in poverty for decades and thousands of construction and service industry jobs to residents of hardscrabble Central Valley towns.
On the other side, urging Brown to reject the casino proposals, are the lobbyists and PR teams for several wealthy gambling tribes who fear the competition could harm their business. They say the projects violate the law California voters passed in 2000, when they approved what the voter handbook called "gambling on tribal lands."
"They're undercutting tribes that played by the rules, or what they thought were the rules, which is you need to build on your reservation or rancheria," said David Quintana, a lobbyist for several tribes that already operate casinos.
"Now you're going to allow tribes to suddenly cherry-pick locations, cutting the legs off other tribes who spent hundreds of millions of dollars to play by the rules in these out-of-the-way locations."
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and at least 10 members of Congress also have asked Brown to stop the casinos from being built, writing in an April letter to him that the projects "set a dangerous precedent and will encourage other tribes in the State to seek casinos far from their existing reservation lands and closer to urban population centers."
The tug of war comes as Brown is raising money for a November ballot measure that would temporarily raise taxes to plug the state's budget deficit. Gambling tribes, including several that oppose the casino proposals, have already given $728,000 to support Brown's initiative. Construction unions, including several that support the casinos, have given $813,000.
Brown's spokesman said the governor wouldn't comment on the casino proposals until he announces his decision.
"Our office continues to solicit and consider input from all stakeholders regarding the projects as we weigh the interests of local communities, tribes and the people of California," spokesman Evan Westrup wrote in an email.
Richard Lehman lives in the mountains northeast of Fresno and can see the North Fork rancheria from his home. He represented the tribe in Congress for 12 years, where he helped write the federal law that governs Indian gaming. Before that, he was a state assemblyman during Brown's first term as governor. A page on the state's Department of Conservation website features a black-and-white picture of Brown and Lehman during a 1982 bill signing.
Today, Lehman is a lobbyist who counts the tribe among his clients.
"I've known the governor a long time. I have enormous respect for him and his ability to wade through complex issues and come up with the right answer," Lehman said. "He's not going to play favorites."
Lehman said he represents the tribe because of his long-standing relationship with its members his neighbors and his desire to help them do better.
"These people are entitled to an opportunity to live off something other than the federal government," he said. "Absent a development like this, there's just no opportunity."
The land tribal members live on 80 mountainous acres south of Yosemite National Park is too steep and remote to develop, he said. Lehman said it makes more sense to build a casino along Highway 99 in Madera County on land already slated for development.
The property is owned by Station Casinos, a Las Vegas casino operator whose lobbyist in Sacramento is Darius Anderson, a Democratic fundraiser with strong ties in the Capitol. He has personally contributed $4,000 to support Brown's tax measure.
Farther north in Yuba County, the Enterprise Rancheria wants to build a casino near the Sleep Train Amphitheater and Highways 65 and 70. The land is owned by Gerald Forsythe, an auto racing team owner from Chicago who once hoped to build a automobile racing track on the property in an area zoned for sports and entertainment.
"The Enterprise Tribe moved along the Feather River drainage area between the Sierras and Valley in modern Butte and Yuba County down to the areas around the proposed casino site," tribal spokesman Charlie Banks-Altekruse said in an email.
Cheryl Schmit, a Placer County activist who helps local communities oppose Indian casinos, said both the Enterprise and North Fork projects are "clear-cut cases of reservation-shopping."
"You have tribes that have established Indian lands that were rurally located and they've hooked up with gaming investors from out of state for the sole purpose of the establishment of casinos," she said.
Schmit has been helping residents of Yuba and Madera counties express their opposition to the governor with letter-writing campaigns and town halls. She said they've paid her with bags of walnuts, plums and figs harvested from their land.