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The Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, which has seen a drastic decline in revenues from its River Rock Casino since a bigger, newer competitor opened near Rohnert Park, has chosen a new leader.

Harvey Hopkins, chairman of the Dry Creek tribe for the past 10 years, lost his bid for re-election over the weekend, coming in last to two other challengers.

The new chairman of the tribe is Chris Wright, 43, who is also the head of marketing for River Rock Casino near Geyserville. Preliminary results shared Monday by two tribal members had Wright earning 41 percent of the vote to 35 percent for Salvina Norris, the vice chairwoman, and 24 percent for Hopkins.

Saturday’s election came at a pivotal time for the 1,200-member tribe, which has seen its casino revenues cut in half since the Graton Resort and Casino opened a year ago about 30 miles south.

After its casino revenues plummeted, Dry Creek defaulted on more than $140 million owed to River Rock bondholders and also remains delinquent on a $3.5 million annual payment to Sonoma County to offset impacts from the gambling hall on a hill overlooking scenic Alexander Valley.

Tribal members said Wright is a fresh face, smart and personable.

“Those that voted for him probably think he (has) younger ideas, maybe more marketing ideas to keep our casino going,” said tribal elder Reg Elgin, who supported Hopkins.

Elgin said Hopkins, 66, may have unfairly been blamed for River Rock’s troubles since Graton opened. But he added that “the voters were pretty adamant in their stand — they thought it was time for a change.”

Wright echoed those comments in assessing his win Monday.

“I think some people just wanted a different direction,” he said in a brief comment over the phone. He could not be reached for an interview with additional questions Monday.

In his candidate statement, Wright stressed his depth of experience in casino marketing and business plans as well as the need for training for tribal members to move up in the casino, tribal office or any other business ventures.

He also may have benefited from belonging to one of the tribe’s larger families and an ability to marshal votes in the election, which reportedly drew around 330 voters, roughly half the tribe’s approximate 650 eligible adult voting members.

“Like anything else, who has the biggest family usually has the winner,” said Bob McKay, 71, a retired transportation planner and tribal member who traveled from his home in Yakima, Wash., to vote for Hopkins. But he also acknowledged “10 years of one person is a long time,” especially for younger tribal members attracted to new leadership.

Hopkins was credited with launching a new era of cooperation and communication with local officials when he was first elected in 2004, culminating with a $100 million revenue-sharing agreement the tribe struck with the county to offset casino expansion impacts. The amount was later reduced after Dry Creek’s plans to expand River Rock and build a hotel resort were put on hold.

Under Hopkins’ leadership, the tribe took steps to restructure and reduce old bond debt and create new revenue, buying vineyards and creating a wine-bottling venture and a new tobacco shop at the casino.

But Hopkins also was accused by critics of being “dictatorial” going ahead with some expensive ventures like buying land adjacent to the tribe’s historic 75-acre rancheria at inflated costs, or establishing a round-the-clock tribal fire department as opposed to continuing to rely on the Geyserville Fire Protection District for emergency response.

“He did some really good things for the tribe. He was a good leader in some respects,” said a former tribal official who spoke only on condition of anonymity so he could talk candidly about Hopkins. But he said Hopkins became arbitrary, “consumed by power” and with a kind of “my way or the highway” attitude.

Hopkins also was a lightning rod in disputes over tribal disenrollments that roiled the tribe off and on. The disputes often broke out around election campaigns as candidates were forced to defend their tribal lineage and sometimes ended up being booted out of the tribe for not meeting the criteria for membership.

Hopkins narrowly survived a recall attempt in 2010, after an election was invalidated in which 165 tribal members voted to oust him, with 85 opposed.

How the newly elected Wright will differ from his predecessor in style or substance remains an open question.

Cynthia Smith, a tribal member who voted for Hopkins, said the result might have been different if the race had been between two candidates instead of a three-way split.

Smith, a middle school teacher who traveled from Southern California to vote, said Hopkins and Norris worked closely together on the board — even though Norris favored his recall four years ago — and they may have pulled from the same group of votes.

She expects Wright will be more low-key than Hopkins but did not predict a wholesale change.

“I think his (Wright’s) message was a focus more on the enterprise, to tighten up,” she said, and “get rid of things costing money that aren’t significantly contributing.”

As a result of River Rock’s reversal of fortune, the approximate $600 monthly payments to tribal members were cut in half, and some education and housing assistance programs were curtailed or discontinued.

But tribal members were able to apply for as much as $200 monthly in food and gas allowances to help offset the cut in their monthly “per cap.”

McKay, the tribal member who lives in Washington, said the casino is lucky to be able to pay its bills now. “The biggest problem with the casino is another casino hit the county. It’s closer and plusher and people are going to go there and there’s nothing we can do about it,” he said.

He said some people may have voted for Wright “because they think he’s going to be able to get them more money. There ain’t more money to be got.”

Saturday’s election resulted in newcomers on a majority of the five-member board, where the terms are two years.

Norris, the vice chairwoman, will be replaced by Betty Arterberry, who formerly served on the board.

Tieraney Giron is the third new board member.

Marjie Rojas retained her seat as secretary/treasurer of the board; and Jim Silva also was returned to office.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5412 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @clarkmas.

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