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Indian Gaming Initiative Ads Simplify Complex Issue

Backers are portraying measure as a vote for Native Americans' self-reliance, although there are tribes that oppose it.


On TV, simplicity sells. Think of Madison Avenue's enduring messages: "Just do it." "Got milk?" "It's the real thing." They're lean, memorable.

Selling a ballot initiative is somewhat trickier than peddling jogging shoes, but the logic's the same: Whittle it down to a concept voters can digest, and pray they'll eat it up.

Supporters of Proposition 5--the November ballot initiative that would remove many restrictions on Indian gambling--are doing just that.

Their challenge is formidable. The measure is complex and arcane, with little direct bearing on the lives of most Californians. But on TV, it's been boiled down to this: A vote for Proposition 5 is a vote for Indian self-reliance.

"The ads are very understated but very compelling," said Darry Sragow, a Democratic political consultant now managing the campaigns of Democratic candidates for the state Assembly--some of whom accept contributions from Indian gaming interests. "Their message is clear--'Allow gambling on Indian reservations and you create hope and opportunity for us.' It's hard for anyone to be against that."

In truth, of course, it's a bit more complicated than that. There are Indian tribes that oppose Proposition 5--and still favor gambling and self-sufficiency.

Those tribes are pitching their case in TV spots of their own. But judging by a recent Times poll, they have some ground to make up.

The poll, conducted in mid-September, found that 57% of the state's registered voters favor Proposition 5. Among those who had seen commercials for and against the initiative, support stood at 64%.

"At this point, you have to give an advantage to the Yes on 5 side for strategy and message," said Don Sipple, a GOP media consultant who has reviewed the ads. "But there's a lot of time left."

Moreover, opponents of Proposition 5 have history on their side: It is always tougher to pass an initiative than to defeat one. And when voters are confused or unsure, they tend to vote no.

Supported by most of California's 104 Indian tribes, Proposition 5 would legalize video slot machines that are in use at several dozen reservation casinos. Tribes opposed to the measure believe it would lead to the proliferation of gambling statewide, making it more difficult to lure customers to their casinos. They have signed individual agreements with Gov. Pete Wilson permitting gambling on their lands.

No other ballot measure--or political race, for that matter--has stimulated as much activity on the Golden State's airwaves this fall.

Spending Nears Record Levels

TV time costs money--lots of it--and experts predict that Proposition 5 may double the record for spending on a ballot measure. That mark was set in 1996, when $57.5 million was spent on a securities fraud initiative, Proposition 211. Proposition 9, the utilities initiative, is also generating near-record spending.

Even before the Proposition 5 campaign hit full stride in early summer, supporters had amassed nearly $25 million. Spokesman Steven Glazer declined to give a current total--"for strategic purposes"--but a full disclosure is due next week.

Opponents said they have spent more than $15 million so far, nearly all of it collected from Caesars World, Hilton Hotels Corp. and other Nevada casinos, which stand to lose business if gambling opportunities increase in California.

Most of the money is paying for dueling TV ads, which have been airing regularly since late spring. Analysts estimate that advertising spending by both sides probably tops $3 million a week right now--a pace expected to intensify as election day draws near.

The Yes on 5 spots were funded by an assortment of tribes calling themselves Californians for Indian Self-Reliance. They won't talk much about strategy, but political analysts say that the overriding goal of their ad campaign is obvious: Persuade voters that the initiative will help historically impoverished Indians pull themselves up by the bootstraps.

"When you go into focus groups, people tell you that the Indians have been screwed for hundreds of years and deserve a break," said Bill Carrick, a Los Angeles political consultant. "Their ads tap into this overwhelming sense of sympathy. That's smart."

Carole Goldberg, director of UCLA's joint degree program in law and American Indian studies, agreed.

"The ads show that gaming provides an opportunity to redress some of the terrible harm and hardship Indian people have suffered," said Goldberg, who appears in an ad for the Yes on 5 campaign. "It's a matter of simple justice."

The appeal works for conservatives and liberals alike, strategists say. Some of the ads emphasize the fact that reservation casinos have all but eliminated tribal unemployment and dependency on welfare. Others feature Indians talking movingly about their lives and how gambling revenues have brightened them.

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