James Ramos rose from an impoverished youth on the San Manuel Indian reservation to one of the most prominent movers and shakers in San Bernardino County.
Ramos' tribe, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, has donated millions of dollars to local schools, hospitals, law-enforcement agencies, fire departments and various nonprofits. The largesse has been provided courtesy of profits generated by San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino.
For four years, Ramos served as chairman of his tribe, leading one of the wealthiest and most powerful gaming tribes in the nation.
And now, Ramos, 45, will be sworn in today as the first San Manuel tribal member elected to the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors.
He credits education as the single most important factor in his success and the success of his tribe.
"Education paved the way not only for the tribal government, but for the community as a whole," said Ramos, who holds an MBA from the University of Redlands, a bachelor's of science degree in business administration from Cal State San Bernardino and an associate degree in business management from Victor Valley College in Victorville.
Before the San Manuel tribe opened its bingo hall in 1985 and grew it to one of the most profitable tribal casinos in the nation, members of the tribe, including Ramos, eked out a living any way they could.
For a few years, the tribe sold tax-free cigarettes before the courts ruled the tribe must pay tax on them because the merchandise crossed state lines during transport.
Ramos said he helped unload the trucks that trundled onto the reservation - then dotted with mobile homes and just a few small homes - for $20 a truckload.
When gaming entered the picture and the tribe's profits began to soar, Ramos decided it was time to get a better understanding of business and Indian gaming. So he went back to school, earning his associate degree in 1994, his bachelor's degree in 2002 and his MBA in 2009.
Also in 2009, Ramos received an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Northern Arizona University.
Ramos began building his political house in 2003, when he ran for a seat on the San Bernardino City Unified School District board. He lost to Judi Penman, the president and CEO of the San Bernardino Area Chamber of Commerce.
That didn't deter the aspiring politician. Two years later, in 2005, Ramos was elected to San Bernardino Community College District board of trustees. He has held that seat ever since but now must resign due to his election to the Board of Supervisors, said district Chancellor Bruce Baron.
"Mr. Ramos has been a fantastic board member," Baron said. "The district has made a great deal of progress during his tenure."
Baron said the district is operating with a balanced budget and secured a half-billion dollars worth of bond-funded instructional buildings at Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa and San Bernardino Valley College during Ramos' time on the board.
Ramos was also instrumental in helping get Crafton Hills College fully accredited and supported increasing online courses for students living in remote mountain and desert areas.
In addition, Ramos was a proponent of free bus passes for students, Baron said.
"James has really been a true asset to the Community College District ... and the students received the benefit of his dedication and hard work," Baron said.
As a supervisor, Ramos can take his dedication to community service and apply it to a broader base to improve the quality of life of county residents, Baron said.
"He's really a tireless person who just does what he needs to do to get the job done," said Baron. "I think he's a man for all people."
Ramos says he's ready to hit the ground running once he's sworn in today. He's already hired a chief of staff, Phil Paule, a Republican who ran for the 67th Assembly District seat in November but was defeated by Melissa Melendez.
"After the election, I got a series of emails from people with resumes. Phil Paule was one who shot his resume over," Ramos said.
Although he lives in Temecula, Paule grew up in San Bernardino and has experience running district offices at the local, state and federal levels, Ramos said. In addition, Ramos said Paule shares his perspectives on the issues of employment, business and regulation of business.
"He has a strong interest in working with me on the agenda I set forward," Ramos said. "He's not a San Bernardino County government insider. He's from outside the area, so he brings that fresh perspective of what we want to attack and change in San Bernardino County."
Ramos has hired Juliann Torres, a longtime county employee now in the County Counsel's Office, as his executive secretary, and will be looking to hire field representatives and other senior staff members after he is sworn in.
Cleaning up corruption, improving infrastructure in his district, growing jobs and attracting business to the county are his top priorities.
For the San Manuel tribe, Ramos' election to the Board of Supervisors could be considered one of its finest moments, especially because the votes were cast in November, which was National Native American Heritage Month.
"Recognizing that the San Manuel Indian Reservation lies within the 3rd District, the tribe recognizes that the San Manuel reservation community will be among the many constituents in a large district to be served," tribal spokesman Jacob Coin said in an email. "Of course, San Manuel wishes (Ramos) all the best as he takes on these new challenges and responsibilities."
Ramos' friends and colleagues in surrounding Native American communities also consider his election to the Board of Supervisors a high honor, symbolic of what the future can hold for gaming and non-gaming tribes alike.
"I think as time goes on you'll see (Ramos) in the Assembly or Congress. He's got a long career ahead of him," said Robert Martin, the chairman of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians in Cabazon. "Everybody was so excited about him getting elected. It's a great accomplishment, and it's something for the tribal children to look up to."
Reach Joe via email, call him at 909-386-3874, or find him on Twitter @SBCountyNow.