The woman who is arguably the most influential person in California’s
burgeoning tribal business movement has pale blue eyes and not a single drop
of Indian blood in her veins. She wasn’t even born in the United States.
Instead, Allison Harvey is a 23-year Capitol veteran brought in on behalf of
a cause she says she cares deeply about. From a college-age stint as a slot
machine repairwoman to Capitol staffer jobs serving two politicians who were
instrumental in bringing about the current tribal gaming compacts, few
political operatives have her knowledge of the industry. Now, as the
executive director of the California Tribal Business Alliance, Harvey has
helped oversee the fledgling group’s transformation into a powerful
At the heart of Harvey’s vision is a simple idea: that business,
particularly casinos, have done more for many tribes than government has in
two centuries of broken promises.
“The tribal governments that have been able to profit from gaming–which is
by no means all of them in California–have had the means to help their own
people,” Harvey said. “Now when someone has a problem they don’t have to
rely on the uneven local government services.”
Harvey can recite a list of new schools, senior centers, water treatment
plants and other amenities that tribes have been able to build with casino
money. In 2004, the Rumsey Rancheria was able to open a new,
state-of-the-art firehouse staffed with two fully-certified paramedic teams.
In the meantime, the tribes are trying to build political power. They face
high levels of opposition from community groups in areas where casinos are
planned. Other problems include involvement by some tribes in the Jack
Abramoff scandal and efforts to place limits on gaming by heavy hitters such
as Senator John McCain, R-Arizona.
Harvey also sees part of her role as pushing sound business practices among
the Alliance’s members. This includes discouraging her tribes from getting
involved in “reservation shopping,” by which outside interests, often
representing Las Vegas casinos, seek out a tribe to act as stand-ins to
allow them to operate in California
She also urges them to “mirror” relevant environmental and labor relations
laws, even though the tribes are generally considered not subject to them
under tribal sovereignty. However, several California tribal casinos have
come under fire for employee-related incidents. This includes s recent
lawsuit–since thrown out–by six women alleging sexual harassment and abuses
by management the Thunder Valley Casino, owned by an Alliance member, the
United Auburn Indian Community.
The Alliance consists of six tribes that broke away from the older
California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA) over the last few
years. In 2004, attorney Howard Dickstein and small group of advisors helped
draw together the new organization.
The group was looking at several candidates for a director, said Paula
Lorenzo, who recently stepped down after a dozen years as chairwoman of the
Rumsey Band. But none of them had the full list of skills and connections
needed for an organization whose membership were mostly political newcomers,
“Until Burton was termed out, we didn’t even think about Allison,” Lorenzo
said. “She knew the political process, had all the background and knew what
steps we had to take.”
Robert Smith, who has been chairman of the Pala Band of Mission Indians for
the past 17 years, said CNIGA “lacked direction.” He credits Harvey with
much of the focus and access the Alliance has–especially when it comes to
recent meeting with political figures such as Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez,
D-Los Angeles, and Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
CNIGA leaders deny that their group is unfocused, saying instead that it may
be more democratic and organic.
“Tribal leaders at CNIGA take a more active role,” said Anthony Miranda,
chairman of CNIGA, “not so much leaving it up to the executive director.”
Miranda notes that CNIGA has been plenty successful itself. About half of
the group’s 67 tribes are involved in gaming, operating about 15,000 slot
machines in casinos ranging from San Diego to the Oregon border. Just like
Alliance tribes casinos, Miranda said, the money is paying for education and
health care, things “the government should pay for but isn’t.”
However, with a much smaller membership, the Alliances tribes have an
approximately equal number of slot machines, about one fifth of the state’s
total. This simple fact makes Harvey an important, if little-known,
political player in California.
Harvey, 55, appeared destined for a life in politics from an early age. Her
parents were English immigrants by way of Canada, but Harvey found herself
growing up in one of the most politically contentious times and places in
American history when her father’s work as a nuclear physicist landed them
While her father was working at the Lawrence Berkeley labs, Harvey started
her political career at age 13, walking precincts on behalf the successful
campaign to keep the Bay Area Rapid Transit train underground in Berkeley.
She graduated from Berkeley High in 1968, then attended the Sorbonne shortly
after Paris was rocked by its famous riots.
Her introduction to gaming came via a 1973 summer job as a slot machine
repairwoman–long before the time of computerized slot machines–on the north
shore of Lake Tahoe. Four years later she landed in Sacramento in 1977 as
Assembly fellow to Sacramento Assemblyman Gene Gualco. She came back to run
Sacramento mayor Phil Isenberg’s successful campaign for the Assembly in
1982, then worked for him for the next 14 years.
It was Isenberg who unsuccessfully tried to push an early version of card
club regulation, via the Gambling Control Act, twice between 1992 and 1996.
Bill Lockyer, the Senate president pro tem, successfully carried the bill in
1997, setting the stage for the tribal gaming compacts the next year.
Meanwhile, Harvey moved into a seven-year stint as chief of staff to Senate
President Pro Tempore John Burton, who authored the 2000 ballot Proposition
1A, which legalized casino gambling on Indian lands. Issues of tribal
sovereignty became increasingly important to her over the years, she added,
especially how to reconcile “government to government” relationships with
good business practices.
While there are still numerous problems with tribal gaming in the state,
said one critic credits Harvey with reviving the then-defunct state Office
of Problem Gambling.
“Everything in the compacts about problem gambling is there due to Senator
Burton and Allison Harvey,” said Bruce Roberts, executive director of the
California Council on Problem Gambling. Roberts said that his group doesn’t
want to shut down tribal gaming, but is hoping to push the state and the
tribes improve on the offices paltry $3 million annual budget.
She is also a vocal advocate for the tribes diversifying their
investments–partially as insurance against a day when voters may turn
against tribal gaming. For example, Rumsey is an investor in Triangle
Properties, a 50-acre development with residential, commercial and retail
construction along the West Sacramento riverfront.
“They are mindful that California voters have given them something that they
didn’t have to give them, that can be taken away,” Harvey said.