California Mayors, Cardroom Employees Protest Bill That Would Let Tribes Bring Lawsuits Over Exclusivity

Ziv Chen

More than 100 protestors, including local mayors and cardroom employees, gathered in Sacramento on Tuesday to protest Senate Bill SB 549, known as the Tribal Nations Access to Justice Act. The bill, which California lawmakers are considering in the Assembly, would allow California Native American tribes to sue cardrooms over the claim that the privately owned cardrooms are violating the tribes’ rights to exclusively offer Las Vegas-style casino gambling in California.

The protesters held banners that read “No on SB 549!” and “Bad Bet For California” as the crowd broke into chants of “We’re not fine with 549!” Those gathered listened to speeches from local politicians and city representatives. 

Marcel Rodarte, executive director for the California Contracts Cities Association, said at the protest, “SB 549 is a bill that will negatively harm many of our cities who have cardrooms located in their communities. Cardrooms are an integral part of our cities as they provide jobs — well-paying jobs — to our residents and members of the surrounding communities.”

The dispute essentially concerns the format of certain games, and whether or not the cardrooms are circumventing the prohibition against their acting as the “house” or the “bank.”

Battle lines

The California Gambling Association has estimated that the passage of SB 549 could cost around 32,000 jobs, as cardrooms may be forced to shut down and downsize thanks to the legislation. Cardrooms have been lobbying strongly against the bill. The Hawaiian Gardens Casino in Los Angeles County spent $9.1 million on lobbying in 2023, the second highest of any lobbying group that reported to state regulators, behind international oil company Chevron Corp. 

“Our two cardrooms have been the backbone of our community as they will provide vital tax services that our city uses to fund vital public services which allow us to provide a better quality of life for our residents and communities,” said the mayor of the City of Gardena, Tasha Cerda, during the protest. “Our cardrooms employ over 1,200 residents and individuals from surrounding communities. That’s over $47 million in wages a year.”

This demonstration was one of many staged recently by cardroom employees and local politicians to encourage lawmakers to disregard SB 549. On June 29, 150 employees from Garden Casino visited Assemblyman Tri Ta’s office to ask him to support their cause. Mayors from Bell Gardens, the City of Commerce, Compton, and Hawaiian Gardens spoke to the media earlier in June about why lawmakers should vote no on SB 549.  

“If you’re going to attack us and try to take away what we’ve had for decades, then we’ve got to fight back,” said Keith Sharp, Hawaiian Gardens cardroom’s general counsel. “And so we’re going to spend the money that we need to spend. I mean it’s about survival at this point.”

SB 549 was introduced to the Senate on February 15, 2023, and passed after moving through a series of committees on May 4, 2023. The bill then moved to the Assembly, where it has been passed through a series of committees. The most recent movement saw the Committee on Governmental Organization pass the bill by a vote of 15 to 1 and hand it to the Appropriations Committee. 

“It’s not about killing card rooms. It’s not about killing cities. It’s about protecting what’s ours,” Tuari Bigknife, the attorney general for the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians in San Diego County, told CalMatters.

The latest events represent a longtime, bitter rivalry between California’s powerful tribal casinos and privately owned gambling establishments across the state. An article published in March by CalMatters, a California nonprofit news organization, reported that since 2014, California tribal casinos have contributed to the state over six times more than commercial cardrooms.