Poll Hints at Golden Gate Fields Tribal Casino: By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Tuesday September 07, 2004

Yet another player has joined the ranks of would-be East Bay gambling—and though it’s identity remains obscured, the firm’s sales pitch is breathtaking in the promises it implies. 

According to two people polled, the calls began as a traditional election poll. 

“They started out by asking what I thought of (California Senate Majority Leader) Don Perata, (Assemblymember) Loni Hancock, Mayor Bates and the mayor of Albany,” said Berkeley computer consultant Tom Hunt. 

“They wanted to know about how various things would change my mind about casino gambling at Golden Gate Fields,” he said. “They way they put it, Berkeley and Albany would be rolling in cash forever.” 

Hunt was floored when the pollster asked him if it would change his mind about the suggested casino if every graduate of Albany and Berkeley High Schools were given a college scholarship. 

“They were talking about laying out large sums of dollars the same way I’d think about buying a printer cable,” Hunt said. 

“We were contacted by several constituents in both cities and they asked us if we know who was behind it,” said Terri Waller, district coordinator for Assemblymember Hancock. 

Waller declined to speculate on the poll’s sponsors. 

The poll appears to be more than a mere opinion survey. Instead, it smacks of what political operatives call a “push poll,” a pseudo-survey designed to influence opinion rather than merely record it. 

One of Waller’s callers was Merry Silk of Albany, who told the Daily Planet she was called about two weeks ago by the pollster. 

“They said, ‘We’re conducting a poll about the upcoming election,’” Silk said. “They asked what I thought about the mayor of Albany and the mayor of Berkeley. 

“Then they began to ask, in several different ways, would it persuade me to support an Indian Casino at the track if they offered every child in Albany and every child in Berkeley were offered a scholarship.” 

Silk said she was “really irritated because the survey indicated to me that this organization was ready to put a lot of money into ensuring that there’d be as large a development as possible.” 

While Silk doesn’t consider herself a major activist—”I joined the Sierra Club mostly because I was concerned about things going on nationally”—she has two children in Albany public schools and she’s active in the PTA. 

Both Silk and Hunt said the pollsters didn’t say how much the scholarships would pay. 

Waller declined to offer any speculations about who’s funding the polls, but Hunt and Silk suspect the cash came from Magna Entertainment, the Canadian racing and gambling firm that controls the track. The firm hasn’t returned any of the Daily Planet’s calls—either about the regional shopping center they’ve proposed for part of the track site or about the casino poll. 

The two sets of questions—one focusing on a tribal casino and the other not—reflect two parallel current in California gambling. 

Owners of race tracks and card rooms have floated Proposition 68, a ballot initiative that would award slot machine licenses to its sponsors unless each and every Native American casino in California agrees to pay a fourth of their net gambling handle to the state. 

The card rooms and “racinos,” as casinos at race tracks have been termed, authorized by the measure would pay a third of their earnings to the state. 

Polls show Prop 68 trailing badly—meaning that if Magna wants casino gambling, they’d have to find a tribe who would buy the land, apply for reservation status and seek authorization from the Department of the Interior to open a casino on the site. 

Silk said the caller also asked which of the track’s arguments might persuade her to endorse the casino plan, and what arguments from opponents would lead her to reject it. 

She finally hung up after a series of questions asked her age, her race, her religion and her income. The first two she answered, the rest she didn’t. 

“Scary,” she concluded. 

While Magna owns more than twice as many North American racetracks than it’s nearest competitor, the firm hasn’t made money for it’s shareholders. 

The poll comes just as Magna has been going through major management changes and a shift in corporate direction. According to accounts in the Canadian press, Frank Stronach, the Austrian immigrant and friend of Arnold Schwarzenegger who controls the firm, is looking deeper into the casino business. It already has a casino at its Canadian racetrack and is seeking to bring slots into it’s tracks in the U.S. The firm also owns a major Internet gambling site. 

Over the objections of many of the minority shareholders in Magna Entertainment, Stronach wants to buy them out and bring the company under the sole control of Magna International Developments, a spinoff created 13 months ago by Magna International, the Canadian giant built up from the world’s largest auto parts company. 

On Aug. 19 and 20, two well-connected Magna executives stepped down, former Ontario Premier William Davis and Newfoundland Premier Brian Tobin—who left within hours of learning that Stronach had hired former General Motors Vic President Mark Hogan as Magna International CEO. 

With Schwarzenegger’s opposition to Proposition 68, the ballot measure sponsored by Stronach and others to install slots at card rooms and tracks, a move to bring in a tribe would be the logical solution. 

Magna’s already announced its intention to building a massive regional shopping center on part of its Golden Gates Fields property, a tactic already implemented at some of its other racing facilities. 

The firm is also building a major racing facility in Dixon in nearby Yolo County that is specially designed for streaming video and simulcasts, leaving the fate of racing at Golden Gate in question since the firm also owns Bay Meadows and getting a racing season is a difficult task.