SACRAMENTO — These are heady times for California's Native Americans, who a decade ago had little more than aspirations. With their newfound wealth, and their willingness to spend it on candidates and campaigns, casino-rich tribes have never had more sway in state politics.
Their influence was on display during the just-completed 2003 legislative session, as tribal lobbyists pushed legislation intended to protect their sovereignty.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 24, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Tribal title -- An article in Saturday's Section A about Indian tribes' political influence in California misspelled Mark Nichols' name as Nicholas, and incorrectly truncated his title. Nichols is chief executive officer of the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians.
And on the hustings, tribes are a dominant force. Since 1998, they have spent more than $120 million on California politics, the bulk of it on propositions to make gambling legal on Indian land.
In the recall campaign, five tribes have spent $6.6 million, making tribes the largest donors in the race. Most of that -- $5.1 million -- has gone to help Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, an advocate of tribes' right to govern their own affairs and the front-runner to replace Gov. Gray Davis if Davis is recalled.
Tribes have also begun to aid state Sen. Tom McClintock's gubernatorial bid, donating $580,000 to help the Thousand Oaks Republican. A strong showing by McClintock could be a boon to Bustamante. Also an advocate of tribal sovereignty, McClintock could pull support away from Bustamante's closest rival, Republican actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who angered some Indian leaders by calling them "special interests."
On Friday, three tribes spent more than $1.4 million to ship mailers and to air TV spots for Bustamante and McClintock.
The political largess has left some tribes sounding alarms that Native Americans, most of whom still live in poverty, may be seen as rich and self-sufficient.
"I think there will be a backlash" from the contributions of $500,000 to $2 million from single tribes, said Paula Lorenzo, chairwoman of the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians. "Tribes will be perceived as the rich kids on the block, out there throwing dollars."
Lorenzo called tribal donations to Bustamante a "gross amount of money." "The money," she said, "is going to work against us five years from now, 10 years from now."
The Rumsey band has given one $25,000 check to Davis. But it could dole out seven-figure checks if it wished. The band was a pioneer in Indian gambling, opening a bingo hall 40 miles west of Sacramento in 1985. Next spring, the 46-member band will open a new casino featuring 2,000 slot machines, eight restaurants, a 200-room hotel and an 18-hole golf course.
Lorenzo worries that, in time, legislators will conclude that tribes have enough money and will declare: "We're not giving the tribes anything more; they can afford it themselves."
In far Northern California, 4,568 Yurok Indians live on a reservation that stretches 44 miles upstream from the mouth of the Klamath River. Three-fourths of the tribe's members have no job. Phone and power lines do not reach much of the reservation. There is no casino on Yurok land; it's too far from population centers.
Yurok Chairwoman Susan Marsten said she was pleased that some tribes can donate large sums to political campaigns. The money ensures access that once was only for wealthy individuals and major corporations, she said.
"There is a level playing field for the first time in history, and that is good," Marsten said in a phone interview. "But people need to recognize ... there are huge disparities between the haves and have-nots."
California has 107 federally recognized tribes -- more than any other state. Of those, 54 operate casinos. Fewer than 20 have casinos with the maximum 2,000 slot machines permitted by state law.
Of the wealthy tribes, a minority are major political players.
This year, seven tribes have donated $7.8 million to state and local campaigns, including the cash for Bustamante.
Two Southern California tribes, the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians and the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, have spent $4.5 million between them to help Bustamante's gubernatorial effort.
By contrast, all labor unions combined had spent about $4.2 million on the recall through Friday.
"This is a proud contribution for the Viejas people," said Bobby Barrett, a member of the Viejas tribal council.
"Cruz Bustamante is our friend; he understands sovereignty. He has been here. He has listened to our elders. He has sat with our kids. He has learned our stories and our values."
Democrats, who hold most offices in Sacramento, receive a majority of tribal dollars.
The California Democratic Party and the state's Senate and Assembly Democrats have received $586,000 this year from tribes, compared with $337,000 for the state GOP and Republican legislators.
Like all major donors, tribes have ready access to legislators. In the closing hours of the legislative session, one of the leaders of the Morongo band and her lobbyist were in the Assembly speaker's quarters, making their case on pending measures.