What does the Obama administration have against the residents of Amador County?
Amador, home to just 38,000 people, is fighting a pitched battle with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to prevent the construction of two giant new Indian casinos in its backyard.
In one lawsuit filed last month, the county seeks to prevent the Ione Band of Miwok Indians from building a $250 million gambling palace in Plymouth, which lacks the road system, law enforcement presence, water, sewers and other vital infrastructure to support such a large development.
Despite persistent objections from the county's elected officials, the acting Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs in May reversed a decision of his Bush administration predecessor and took 228 acres near Plymouth into trust on behalf of the Ione Band, so the tribe can build a casino. If allowed to stand, the federal action means the tribe will not have to comply with a federal rule that requires it, among other things, to show that gambling at that location would "not be detrimental to the surrounding community."
Meanwhile, the Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians has signed a compact with the state for a casino in another Amador town, Ione, population 7,000.
Incredibly, that tribe consists of just one member. Its casino effort is being bankrolled by a New York shopping mall magnate. To protect its interests, the county has involuntarily become party to a pact that requires the tribe to mitigate the planned casino's impacts, but Amador is still in federal court challenging the tribe's right to conduct gambling on the land.
Amador is home to one Indian casino already, the Jackson Rancheria. An advisory measure placed on the ballot in 2005 asked county residents if they wanted more casinos. An overwhelming majority, 84.5 percent, said "no."
Since then Amador has spent $2.4 million in legal fees to fight Indian casinos, but it still faces the prospect of two giant gambling halls being built in the near future.
Amador is a microcosm of the explosive expansion of Indian gambling across the country and what seems to be the helplessness of local residents to prevent it. In some cases, well-heeled investors have hooked up with impoverished tribes to push casinos. In others, rich and politically powerful tribes are seeking to branch out beyond established reservations to set up off-reservation satellite casinos.
The Obama administration has intensified the push by loosening a Bush-era rule that limited how far tribes could go off reservation to build casinos.
Gov. Jerry Brown is even now enmeshed in a fight over whether to approve two off-reservation gambling applications, one near Fresno, another near Marysville. Campaign contributions from the various interests involved in these efforts are flowing from all directions.
In the midst of it all, tiny Amador struggles to preserve what county Supervisor Richard Forster calls its "charming character" where visitors come to enjoy open space and to escape big cities. Three casinos within a 200-square mile area of Amador would change the county in ways that cannot be mitigated, Forster believes, but neither federal nor state officials seem to care what the locals think or want. "The cards," he says "are stacked against us."
And that, at its core, is the real tragedy of the Indian casino explosion. Gambling interests and the federal government hold all the cards, and Amador County and similar communities are getting dealt a bad hand.