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A Little Guilt May Do

November 01, 1998|Ioana Patringenaru | Ioana Patringenaru is a graduate student at UC Berkeley's school of journalism. She is writing her master's thesis on Indian gaming

BERKELEY — The most important thing to understand about Proposition 5, the Indian gaming initiative, is that it concerns the replacement of slot machines in Indian casinos. If it passes, Native American tribes in California will get to keep the machines they now use. If the measure fails, they will have to replace them with lottery-type video games still under development.

That California voters should be engaged in this specialized dispute is not only testimony to what $100 million and more than 60 political consultants can do, but also to our complicated feelings about Native Americans.

The initiative already bears the distinction of being the most expensive in California's history. Proponents had raised $60 million, and opponents $26 million, as of last week. Experts estimate that by the end of the campaign, spending will hit the $100-million mark. Those who keep statistics will have to go back to 1988 to find a similar spending binge. That year, the insurance industry and trial lawyers spent $84 million in a five-way initiative war, with $63 million going to oppose Proposition 103, the only one of the five to pass.

One of the reasons behind the Proposition 5 spending extravaganza is that the tribes were in a rush to qualify the initiative to avoid having slot machines seized by federal authorities for violating state law. They ended up paying $8 million, instead of the usual $1 million, for an intensive signature-gathering drive and direct-mail campaign, which were bolstered by TV commercials aired as early as April. Once on the air, the Yes on 5 campaign strategists decided to keep the ads coming.

All this is in keeping with the inflationary costs of initiative campaigns in California. What is noteworthy about Proposition 5 is that Indian tribes on the Yes side have spent all this money to convince us they're poor. They have successfully turned the initiative--a 40-page document of mind-numbing technicalities and legalese--into a human epic in which jealousy, betrayal and the triumph of the weak against the strong are featured.

Unlike recent initiative battles over affirmative action, bilingual education and immigration, which got the public's attention by pitting Anglos and ethnic groups against each other, the Yes side and, to some extent, the No side on Proposition 5 are pleading in favor of a minority by appealing to white guilt.

The media strategists for the measure's proponents knew from the beginning that creating ads in which souful Native Americans, rather than disembodied narrators or third-party speakers, carry the message was the best way to woo voters. At the helm of the Yes campaign is Winner/Wagner & Mandabach, a Santa Monica-based consulting firm that has successfully worked on other gaming initiatives in Arizona, Missouri, Michigan and West Virginia. It is also part of a consortium of firms working on behalf of the utility industry to defeat a measure on this year's ballot--Proposition 9--that would undo an electricity deregulation deal approved by the Legislature.

The No on 5 campaign also has high-priced consulting talent, the Sacramento-based firm Goddard Claussen. Rick Claussen and Ben Goddard are probably best known for their widely acclaimed Harry and Louise ad campaign, which featured a likable middle-class couple sitting at the kitchen table trashing President Bill Clinton's 1994 health-care initiative.

While the Yes on 5 side went for the heartstrings, the No on 5 campaign initially aimed for the pocket book. According to the latest Los Angeles Times poll, heartstrings have proved a better sell: 58% of likely voters support the measure.

The steady stream of Yes ads, starring eloquent Native Americans and beautiful western landscapes, has captured the imagination of political writers up and down the state. Why write complicated stories unraveling gaming provisions when you can write in-depth profiles of Native American leaders?

Goddard Claussen caught on and began running ads that featured their own eloquent Native Americans set in beautiful western landscapes and speaking against the proposition.

Coverage of Proposition 5 in California's newspapers has been extensive. The Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee, San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle each has published about 50 stories on the initiative. The Press Enterprise in Riverside and San Diego Union Tribune have run nearly twice as many, probably because of the large number of casinos in their circulation area. But the quality of the coverage has varied greatly. The Times, the Chronicle and the Examiner have concentrated on campaign-finance and human-interest stories. The Sacramento Bee initially focused on the nuts and bolts of the initiative, but has lately succumbed to the human-interest angle.

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