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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Wilson Lays His Cards on the Table in Gaming Debate

July 13, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Pete Wilson despises gambling--cards, slots, horses, even the lottery. "I don't care what the hell rich people do," he says. "They've got money to waste.

"But too many of the wrong people gamble. People should not be gambling away their welfare checks."

Wilson also has a second objection to big-time casino gambling--the kind some Indian tribes now are trying to legalize with a ballot initiative. "Law enforcement shudders at the thought," he says. "They think it will increase drug [money] laundering, prostitution and the threat of organized crime."

When told many Native Americans consider such comments insulting, the governor responds: "Well, I don't know why they think they're different from anybody else. It's happened all over the country, long before the Indians were ever involved. It's a big cash business. And the opportunities are very great for criminal activities."

Wilson's hostility toward wagering made him a tough negotiator on a gambling compact with the Pala tribe of San Diego County that was designed to be a model for all California Indians. No craps. No blackjack. No conventional slots. No Nevada-style games in which players bet against the house.

Federal law required the governor to negotiate with tribes to operate any games permitted elsewhere in California. Poker's one. Bingo's OK. If the Pala compact is ratified by the Legislature--currently a big "if"--the tribe will be allowed to operate new machines that pay winners from a players' pool.

But there'll be no slot-type handles to crank, or sirens and flashing lights to herald a jackpot. Wilson felt they'd just encourage the players.

"I'm not one who wants to mind everybody's business," he says. "But there are a lot of people I've seen who cannot afford to gamble and are seemingly unable to resist the temptation."

*

Today, the governor will sign similar compacts with six other tribes. He's also close to agreement with a seventh and still is negotiating with four additional bands.

These tribes have been operating slots that Wilson and U.S. attorneys consider illegal. With compacts, the Indians will have six months to dump the machines. Not a bad deal: It's their path to legal gambling, but they still can cash in on the lucrative slots for a while.

A couple dozen other gaming tribes, however, are fighting the Pala compact in the Legislature and pushing the ambitious ballot measure to authorize Nevada-style gambling.

"The Pala compact takes away too much tribal sovereignty," contends Daniel Tucker, a member of the Sycuan Band of Mission Indians and chairman of the initiative campaign. "We'd love to negotiate our own compact, but Pete Wilson won't let us."

That's because, in the initial Pala talks, Wilson refused to bargain with any tribe gambling illegally. Now he is, but he won't negotiate significantly beyond the Pala pact.

I asked Wilson whether he ever gambles. "Yeah," he said, "I've gambled once or twice." He mentioned blackjack, but added: "I don't think I've played blackjack for money in 20 years."

*

Wilson tells of a disturbing experience he had as a 27-year-old valet parker at Golden Gate Fields racetrack while earning money for law school at UC Berkeley:

"One afternoon a guy pulled up in a terrible old heap and got out. I started to get in to drive this jalopy away. I looked in the back seat and there was no back seat. But on the floorboards were two little boys.

"I lost it. I went after this guy and grabbed him and spun him around and said, 'You sonofabitch. You get in that car and drive out of here. If you think you're going to go in and play the ponies and leave these two little kids unattended in that jalopy, then you're crazy. You got two choices: You get in and drive away or else I'm going to call the cops.' "

The pony player drove off, but not before leaving a permanent imprint on a future governor about gambling addiction.

Of course, California Indians also can tell stories--about enslavement, disease, land theft, massacres. There were 300,000 Native Americans living here in 1769 when the Spaniards began building those lovely missions, largely with slave labor. By the Gold Rush, their numbers were down to 125,000. Then the killings began in earnest. By 1900, only 17,000 Indians remained, many consigned to poverty on worthless land.

So maybe we owe the survivors some slack. Maybe illegal gaming really isn't so bad when compared to illegal genocide.

Voters will do some soul-searching on that one in November when they consider the initiative. Meanwhile, Wilson believes he's offering his own slack in the compacts--for a guy who really hates gambling.

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