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The State | THE RECALL CAMPAIGN

$2-Million Donation Fits Tribe's Bold Profile

September 03, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

ALPINE, Calif. — Though the political world may have been set abuzz by the Viejas Indian tribe's $2-million contribution to the gubernatorial hopes of Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, members of the tribal council said Tuesday that the mega-contribution is consistent with the tribe's long-held philosophy of activism and self-reliance.

"In the 1980s," when Indian gaming had its beginnings, "Viejas realized if we were not proactive, we could not control our destiny," tribal council Treasurer John A. Christman said Tuesday at a news conference called to announce the contribution.

Indeed, the 300-member Viejas band of Kumeyaay Indians has made several bold moves to control its economic destiny by expanding its casino beside Interstate 8 east of San Diego and diversifying its business interests so that it never depends solely on gaming. In a generation, the tribe has gone from poverty to prosperity.

And it has taken a leadership role among Indian tribes in funding friendly politicians and pushing favorable legislation. One of the friendliest politicians has been Bustamante.

Since Bustamante first ran for lieutenant governor in 1998, the tribe has donated more than $400,000 to his campaigns. Bustamante, tribal officers said Tuesday, is more than just another officeholder who shows attention only when he needs campaign money. By comparison, the tribe has had high-profile disagreements with Gov. Gray Davis.

"Cruz Bustamante is our friend," said tribal council Vice Chairman Bobby L. Barrett. "Our respect is in proportion to the respect he has shown California Indians.... He has sat down with our elders, learned our stories and our values. He has given us a hand in partnership, not paternalism."

Earlier this year, Bustamante sided with the tribe in its dispute with Davis over how large a slice of the profits the tribes should pay to the state in exchange for approval of more slot machines.

Bustamante has told Indian audiences that the governor was not treating Indian gaming with the same respect he would show to another industry with similar job-producing impact on the state. Even when the governor reduced the amount he believed was appropriate, Bustamante refused to budge.

Although Viejas leaders said Tuesday that they oppose the recall, they said the majority of their money and effort will go to electing Bustamante, not saving Davis.

Under longtime Chairman Anthony R. Pico, the Viejas tribe has become one of the most politically powerful and economically successful of California Indian tribes. From its 1,600-acre reservation, the tribe has become a major source of charitable donations and has ensured that it is heard in Washington and Sacramento.

Along with its 280,000-square-foot casino, the tribe owns two recreational vehicle parks, a 57-store retail outlet center and majority interest in a bank. One of the tribe's proudest boasts is that the program that once gave the tribe free food is now kept afloat financially by the tribe.

In March, Viejas joined three other tribes in breaking ground for a $43-million hotel in Washington, D.C., considered the first tribally owned enterprise in the nation's capital. Pico has said that the hotel is only the beginning of the cooperation among the nation's Indian tribes for economic benefit.

"Viejas has always seen itself as a pacesetter," said Rachael Ortiz, executive director of Barrio Station, a social service agency in San Diego's heavily Latino neighborhood. Ortiz was among several Latino leaders who joined the Viejas council members Tuesday in endorsing Bustamante.

In 2000, Viejas contributed $3 million to the successful ballot measure to legalize Indian gaming. Last year, former Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Chula Vista) signed on as a Viejas consultant. Viejas also has hired Sacramento insider Richie Ross as a consultant; among Ross' clients is Bustamante.

"Arnold Schwarzenegger picked a fight with people who know how to play the game," Indian tribal consultant Michael Lombardi said of the Viejas contribution.

Viejas has shown a willingness to defy law enforcement and even break with other tribes. When a tribal member was accused of murder, the Viejas council refused to give local prosecutors certain tribal financial records on grounds of sovereignty. A compromise was reached.

The Viejas tribe led a defection from the California Nations Indian Gaming Assn. last year when it decided that the group was no longer effective in representing the $5-billion-a-year industry.

The Viejas council members frame their political activism and contributions as a continuing bid to control their economic future.

"Do we want something in return?" Barrett said of the Bustamante contribution. "You bet we do. It's called justice."

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