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California and the West

Tribes Emerge as Powerful Players in State Politics

Contributions: The casino operators outspent all other interests in recent election, pouring millions into dozens of races. Observers expect them to continue wielding significant clout in gambling issues.


SACRAMENTO — Lost in the hoopla over Democratic victories last week was the emergence this election of a powerful new player with millions of dollars to spend and a clearly defined political agenda--the American Indian.

As the dust from the political season began to settle, it became clear that no other group had invested more in the election than Native Americans, and that no group is likely to wield as much influence on gambling issues in the future as the California tribes that operate casinos.

Not only were Native Americans filling the airwaves with commercials touting their casino initiative, Proposition 5, but behind the scenes they were pouring millions into dozens of political races, from Assembly to governor.

In the final week, Indian tribes pumped nearly $2 million into state campaigns, outspending any other interest and eclipsing even the $1.6 million organized labor poured into political races in the same period.

By Nov. 3, Indians had spent more than $70 million on their initiative and separately invested a total of $4 million in Democratic and Republican campaigns.

"It's blown the doors off everything we've ever seen in the state of California," said Sean Walsh, Gov. Pete Wilson's spokesman. "From a political perspective you just have to admire their audacity and the breathtaking scope of their contributions."

The emergence of Native Americans as major contributors in the political process is the culmination of a trend that began in 1994 when the tribes dropped $800,000 into Democrat Tom Umberg's losing campaign for attorney general.

Initially, most of the Indian money went to Democrats, but in the 1996 election Native Americans began sprinkling contributions among some Republicans whose districts housed gambling casinos.

This year, Indians spread their dollars evenly between the two parties and dramatically increased both the amount they gave and the number of candidates who received their largess.

Gubernatorial winner Gray Davis racked up more than $750,000 in Indian contributions, Republican attorney general candidate Dave Stirling collected $396,000 and Assembly candidate Phil Hawkins, also a Republican, picked up $120,000.

"They have understood that the battles no longer are about bows and arrows and guns," said Nikki Symington, a spokesperson for several tribes. "The battles are now about politics, and for the first time in their lives, they are armed as equally as the rest of us and they have used it well."

The California political uprising by the Indians provides the best illustration of how gaming has transformed some reservations from pockets of poverty to outposts of prosperity, and mirrors their appearance on the election scene in other states where tribes also have casinos.

But none of the Indian political contributions given elsewhere can match what tribes here invested in California elections.

Much of their contributions to California political candidates showed up in the last week before the election, a time when campaign giving becomes frenetic and when many of the most controversial contributors dole out the bulk of their donations.

The final week, for example, also produced substantial contributions from tobacco interests, the gun lobby and abortion rights groups.

The abortion rights contributions went almost entirely to Davis, who received $70,115 from the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

Competing gambling interests, including the Nevada casinos, horse racing tracks and GTECH, the state lottery's biggest contractor, meanwhile, together donated more than $400,000 to various campaigns--an amount dwarfed by the Indian donations.

Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, a group dedicated to making campaign contribution reports available on the Internet, said her research has shown that 25% of all money raised in an election cycle comes in the last two weeks.

She said the final explosion of giving is often because donors and campaigns want to hide certain contributions, so they wait to make donations until it is too late for them to become an issue in the election. Other times, she said, the sheer excitement of the last week prompts an outpouring from those with money to donate.

But while the Indians gave huge contributions at the end of the election cycle, they contributed heavily in the early days as well.

"It became obvious that they became players in a big way," said former Assembly Republican Leader Bill Leonard (R-San Bernardino). "It was now another group you would go to seeking contributions. It was new, it was like an Oklahoma land rush, candidates with their hands out."

Symington, the tribes' spokeswoman, said the Indian patterns of giving represented a new sophistication about the political process and an understanding that they needed to financially back their friends and oppose their enemies.

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