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Tribes Take a Wait-and-See Recall Stance

Indian gaming produces plenty of cash. Which, if any, campaign gets funded isn't yet decided.

August 17, 2003|Glenn F. Bunting and Dan Morain | Times Staff Writers

The gubernatorial recall election comes at a particularly opportune time for one of California's ascendant special interests -- Native American tribes that have exclusive rights to operate Las Vegas-style casinos in the state.

For months, Indian leaders have been frustrated by the slow pace of talks with Gov. Gray Davis over new gambling compacts that would help small tribes in generally remote locations.

At the same time, other tribes with large casinos are pressing for an increase in the number of slot machines allowed, and are growing concerned over what they see as attempts by the state and local governments to erode their authority as sovereign entities.

Now, with total gambling revenues of about $5 billion per year, California tribes are poised to exert significant influence in the Oct. 7 election. Since 1998, tribes have spent more money on state political campaigns -- in excess of $120 million -- than any other interest group.

Because donors are subject to limits on direct contributions, unlimited independent expenditures may become even more important in this truncated campaign. The tribes have access to large amounts of money and have demonstrated a willingness to spend on campaigns.

"The tribes were invisible until they started writing checks," said Jim Knox of California Common Cause. "There is no better illustration of the power of money in politics."

Interviews with tribal chairmen, consultants and political experts indicate that Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante is the favored candidate among some California Indian leaders.

"We're hoping for strong support," said Richie Ross, Bustamante's lead campaign strategist. "But there really has been no quantification of that. The tribes will be involved. I don't know to what extent."

Ross also serves as a lobbyist and political consultant for two major casino-operating tribes: the Barona and Viejas bands of Indians in San Diego County. The two tribes have donated a combined $487,500 to Bustamante since 1998, when he was elected lieutenant governor.

Tribal leaders are intrigued by the candidacy of Arnold Schwarzenegger and eager to learn his position on Indian gambling. Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks has spoken out on behalf of tribal sovereignty and is viewed favorably by some tribes.

And the possibility still exists that tribes will oppose the recall. After all, it was Davis who granted them the exclusive gambling rights they had sought for so many years and had failed to secure under Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. So far, no tribes have publicly stated plans to support the recall.

"Has Gray Davis really done that bad of a job?" asked Vincent Armenta, chairman of the Santa Ynez Band of Mission Indians. "I think it is pretty difficult to blame one individual for all of the state's problems."

Tribes are taking a wait-and-see approach.

"Nobody is showing their hands in any significant way," said Howard Dickstein, a Sacramento attorney who represents several tribes.

Armenta said he hopes to meet next week with Bustamante, Davis and McClintock. "I believe all of them have potential to be a decent governor," Armenta said.

Deron Marquez, chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, said his tribe has decided to sit out the recall campaign, at least for the time being.

"In my mind, the recall is more than a done deal. I think the governor is on his way out," he said. "We're just basically waiting to see who is for real and who is not."

Many of the tribes want to see where the candidates stand on expanded tribal casinos and whether California should authorize slot machines at card rooms and horse tracks, a proposition the tribes oppose.

"Like a lot of special interests, tribal casino leaders will invest in a lot of candidates when they're not certain of the outcome," said former Assembly Speaker Leo McCarthy, a San Francisco Democrat and a critic of expanded gambling. "They'll bet on more than one horse."

The ability of the tribes to influence an election was illustrated in the Los Angeles mayor's race in 2001. Antonio Villaraigosa had angered the tribes by the way he handled their issues when he was Assembly speaker, so they launched a mail campaign attacking him as being soft on crime. He lost to James K. Hahn.

"The tribes played hardball against Villaraigosa, letting him know and everybody else that if they oppose the tribes, they will come in and pour massive amounts of money against them -- and massive amounts of money they have," said Robert Stern, head of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.

Under Davis, Las Vegas-style gambling has exploded on reservations throughout California, particularly in San Diego County and the Palm Springs area. In 2000, voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure granting tribes exclusive rights to operate slot machines.

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