Published: 11 March 2012 08:29 PM

Richard Milanovich, the longtime chairman of Riverside County’s Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and a leader in the effort to legalize and grow the state’s tribal gaming industry, died Sunday. He was 69.

Mr. Milanovich led the Agua Caliente tribe for more than three decades, during a time when tribal members moved from poverty to casino-fostered wealth. Mr. Milanovich became one of the most powerful people in California politics, negotiating — and sometimes clashing — with governors and legislative leaders while overseeing tens of millions of dollars in campaign spending that resonated as far away as Washington.

Mr. Milanovich had battled cancer and other ailments in recent years, friends and associates said. He nevertheless continued to have a positive outlook, they said.

“Because of him, thousands of California Indians live a better life than they ever would have had,” Michael Lombardi, a gaming commissioner at the Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians, near Coachella, said Sunday. “His leadership, his wisdom, his vision is going to be missed. He cannot be replaced.”

The Agua Caliente tribe operates two casinos in the Coachella Valley, in Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage. They are among the most successful casinos in the state.

Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit said he got to know Mr. Milanovich soon after his assignment as chief of the California Highway Patrol station in the Coachella Valley.

Mr. Milanovich, Benoit said, was an intelligent, genuine leader who was a keen negotiator determined to get the most for his constituents.

“And that meant for all of the people in the valley, not just the tribe,” Benoit said Sunday. “He represented all of the people. He was very fair. He made sure his constituents got the very best benefit that they could.”

Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Palm Springs, called Mr. Milanovich “a treasured friend” and a “great national leader.”

“Richard brought his personal ethic — hard work and self reliance — to every single thing he tackled,” Bono Mack said in a statement. ”But most importantly, Richard brought humility, sincerity and compassion to his job.”

Tribal leaders from around Inland Southern California praised Mr. Milanovich on Sunday.

“In his more than 30 years in tribal government, Chairman Milanovich led with humility, wisdom and sincerity, and was guided by a passionate commitment to cultural preservation, education, and the self-sufficiency of Native Americans,” Robert Martin, chairman of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians near Banning, said in a statement.

Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians near Temecula, said Mr. Milanovich’s death “will leave an irreplaceable hole for all tribes as well as his people.”


Mr. Milanovich was an early proponent of allowing California tribes to have Las Vegas-style gaming on tribal lands. Then-Gov. Pete Wilson, as well as many lawmakers, opposed the effort throughout the 1990s.

To read entire story, click here.