SACRAMENTO — Native Americans battling authorities for the right to run casinos as they see fit have given more than $1 million to state candidates this year, with most of it going to Lt. Gov. Gray Davis' campaign for governor and two candidates running for attorney general.
The donations come as the fight over gambling on reservations grows more intense. Several tribes are promoting an initiative for the November ballot to permit expanded gambling, while U.S. attorney's offices have sued in an effort to seize an estimated 13,000 slot machines on tribal land that they contend are illegal.
The governor and attorney general are the two state officials with the most influence over the future of gambling on the reservations. Outgoing Gov. Pete Wilson and Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, who is running for governor, have opposed expanded gambling on reservations.
With the June 2 primary nine days away, several tribes are spending big on the chance that new people in the state's two most powerful offices will have more favorable attitudes.
Davis, seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, has taken $171,000 from tribes fighting state and federal authorities in the courts over gambling operations. Davis' primary opponents, millionaires Al Checchi and Rep. Jane Harman, have not received money from the tribes. Nor has Lungren, the likely Republican nominee for governor.
In the primary fight to replace Lungren as attorney general, Native Americans are backing one Democrat and one Republican. Sen. Charles Calderon (D-Whittier), seeking the Democratic nomination for attorney general, has taken $469,000, campaign finance reports filed last week show. Chief Deputy Atty. Gen. Dave Stirling, seeking the Republican nomination, has accepted $293,000 from the gambling tribes.
Several Republican and Democratic legislators also have taken gambling money.
"These candidates have demonstrated their belief in and commitment to tribal sovereignty and understand that the tribes do not want to return to welfare," said Waltona Manion, spokeswoman for the California Nations Indian Gaming Assn.
Manion noted that Nevada casinos, which long have fought expanded gambling in California, are a major presence in California politics. Nevada interests maintain a significant lobby in Sacramento, but have not emerged as large donors to state candidates this year.
"It is money that is rightfully the tribe's money, and they can do what they want with it," said Davis' campaign manager, Garry South.
South said Wilson and Lungren have treated the tribes unfairly in negotiations over gambling, and said Davis "would have acted in good faith in developing a compact that would not have put any tribe at a disadvantage."
Davis has raised $3.7 million for his campaign for governor this year, and has spent $7.1 million.
His largest single source of money is organized labor, which gave his campaign $656,000 between March 18 and May 16, the most recent campaign reporting period. During that time, Davis received at least another $300,000 from attorneys who represent plaintiffs in fraud and injury lawsuits.
Although candidates taking the money say they would not be influenced by it, a campaign aide to state Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), also running for the Democratic nomination for attorney general, said the donations suggest that Calderon's campaign is "desperate." Lockyer has raised almost three times more money than Calderon.
Calderon, who insisted that he would not be unduly influenced by the donations, said tribes should be "treated with dignity" during negotiations. "They've struggled to develop economic self-sufficiency. . . . I respect their right to be a sovereign nation."
While Calderon long has voiced support for the tribes, the donations to Stirling come as a bit of a surprise, given his boss' opposition to expanded gambling on Indian reservations. Stirling, on leave to run his campaign full time, was Lungren's top deputy from the start of Lungren's administration.
Manion said that despite Lungren's view, Stirling has expressed his support of tribal rights and "gaming as an economic development tool."
Lungren's deputies served as Wilson's lead lawyers in negotiations with the Pala tribe over a compact reached this year that other tribes have attacked as too restrictive.