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Bustamante a Fighter for Indians' Causes

His ties to tribes date from the time before they had much clout. They are now a powerful base of support.

September 07, 2003|Jenifer Warren and Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — Throughout his political career, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante has fought for one group of Californians vigorously: Native Americans, whose casinos make up a $5-billion-a-year industry expected to eventually eclipse the take in Las Vegas.

During the early 1990s, when tribal leaders couldn't get an audience with many lawmakers, then-Assemblyman Bustamante was cultivating relationships that survive to this day. He shook hands. He made introductions. He listened.

Later, as Assembly speaker, he successfully fought legislation that would have established state oversight of Indian gaming, and he invited tribal elders to lead prayers on the floor of the lower house.

The warm relations have continued during Bustamante's tenure as lieutenant governor. He has held symposiums on tribal issues, attended casino groundbreakings and Indian funerals and championed a bill boosting public school instruction on tribal history and sovereignty rights.

Last week, he told the California Nations Indian Gaming Assn. that he was open to lifting a cap on the number of slot machines tribes can operate -- a restriction contained in gambling agreements negotiated by Gov. Gray Davis and approved overwhelmingly by the Legislature and California voters.

The tribes, in turn, have been generous with financial support. The most recent tally shows that Bustamante has received about $4 million from Native American groups since 1993.

"He took tribal leaders under his arm early on and introduced them to the system and the world up there in Sacramento," said Nikki Symington, a spokeswoman for the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians. "This was a time when we had no money to give to anybody. The Viejas people and many other tribes feel he is a friend -- and it goes beyond campaign contributions and gaming."

Bustamante agreed, saying that, while he was grateful for the financial support, his interest in the tribes stemmed from his outrage over their persecution and a desire to help them break out of poverty.

Before they had the resources to donate to political campaigns, "there were a lot of us helping them and trying to find a way for them to improve their lives," he said.

"You know what happened to them over the last 100 years -- given land nobody else wanted. Gaming is a means to an end, a way to do economic development."

As an assemblyman in the mid-1990s, Bustamante was an unswerving vote for tribal interests on issues ranging from unfettered gambling to a bid to make the fourth Friday in September a day honoring California's first people.

In one of his most memorable moments as Assembly speaker, he waged war on the last night of the legislative year in 1997 with Bill Lockyer, then the Senate leader, over a regulatory measure the tribes feared could undermine their gambling operations.

The tribes argued that their status as sovereign entities meant the state should not have jurisdiction over them. But others thought the state should maintain some control over the rapidly expanding casino industry.

The battle went on all night, and Bustamante allowed a dozen tribal leaders and their representatives to lounge in the speaker's conference room. When the fight ended at 7 a.m., Bustamante and the tribes had won.

The legislator also waded in during a pivotal 1998 Assembly battle over ratification of gambling agreements signed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson and 11 tribes, but opposed by most other tribes.

Bustamante argued that the agreements infringed on Indian rights by limiting tribal control over how much and what type of gambling would be permitted in their operations.

He lost that day and stood after the vote -- one of the most contentious of the legislative season -- to make a solemn declaration on the Assembly floor: "I'd like everyone to give us a moment of silence, because we are now destroying Indian sovereignty."

Later, California voters approved ballot measures that brought full legalization of Las Vegas-style gambling in tribal casinos, even though opponents raised concerns about crime and the absence of state regulation.

Bustamante's unabashed backing of expanded tribal gaming has drawn criticism from some community leaders worried about the spillover costs from what they see as byproducts of casinos: additional traffic, crime and environmental effects.

"I'm afraid a Gov. Bustamante would bring a whole new dimension to the authority and latitude given to tribes," said Fred Jones of the California Coalition Against Gambling Expansion. "What I fear is he would open the floodgate."

Bustamante's connections are particularly strong with Southern California tribes such as the Viejas and the Morongo Band of Mission Indians.

In appreciation for his support, Morongo Chairwoman Mary Ann Martin Andreas once gave Bustamante 59 arrows -- one for each of the tribes that had signed gambling compacts. Bustamante designated her as the lieutenant governor's "Woman of the Year" and recently accompanied Andreas when she announced her bid to become the first Native American to win a seat in the Assembly.

Times staff writer Dan Morain contributed to this report.

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