Get into a conversation about the big money and power politics surrounding California Indian tribes and their casinos and you're bound to hear a comment like, "It just happened overnight." Ironic, considering how the American political establishment committed cultural genocide against the Indians over a period that lasted hundreds of years.
Ironic yes, but it's also true-if by "overnight" they're talking about the relatively short span of time between Nov. 3, 1998 and March 7, 2000. In purely financial and political terms, those were the Big 16 Months for the tribes-and for all the non-Indians who stood to gain from an association with them.
On Nov. 3, 1998, the good people of California went to the ballot box and, in overwhelming numbers, endorsed legalized casino gambling on the reservations. The result was 62.4 percent to 37.6 percent, a landslide victory for Proposition 5. (Tribes statewide supported Prop. 5 to the tune of more than $60 million.) Thanks to a Supreme Court ruling nullifying Prop. 5, we had to do it all over again on March 7, 2000. That day, we Californians passed Proposition 1A, a constitutional amendment to allow gaming on tribal lands, by an even wider margin.
In between the two public votes, on Sept. 10, 1999, Gov. Gray Davis and 40 Indian tribes statewide signed compacts that defined the terms of legal tribal gaming and effectively put an end to two decades worth of legal battles between the tribes, the state and the federal government.
It was the public's sentiment in the Prop. 5 vote that told state political leaders they should take the tribes seriously; it was the result of the Prop. 1A vote that gave them no choice. Passage of the ballot measure, coupled with the language in the tribal-state gaming compacts signed in 1999, cemented the California Indian tribes' future place in the state political landscape.
And it is indeed a lofty place, where lots and lots of money draws lots and lots of influential and powerful friends. Some California gaming tribes have become some of the biggest spenders in Sacramento to ensure that they maintain access to the powerbrokers who will determine their fate through state legislation.
In the 2001-2002 election cycle alone, the 13 California Indian tribes considered to be "major donors" by the Secretary of State's office contributed more than $9.8 million to various political campaigns. Heading the pack was the Agua Caliente Band from Palm Springs at more than $1.95 million in contributions. Coming second was the Morongo Band, also located near Palm Springs, with $1.67 million.
Four San Diego County tribes were among the 13. The Barona Band was third statewide with $1.36 million. The Viejas Band was fourth at $1.04 million. The Sycuan and Pala bands came in ninth and tenth, respectively, with $329,500 and $196,245.
Some observers of state politics say the tribes have joined special interests such as the prison guards and teachers unions in the elite class of power players in Sacramento. And it's all thanks to the revenue generated by the casinos, made possible by the vote of the people and the tribal gaming compacts.
Indian gaming revenue in California is estimated at more than $5 billion a year. For comparison, Nevada's casinos rake in roughly $10 billion annually. Some industry watchers say California tribal gaming, which is growing rapidly, might surpass Nevada within a decade.
One Sacramento political consultant, who said he's not at all against Indian gaming, told CityBeat that the tribes are raising the stakes with gaudy campaign contributions to both Republican and Democrat candidates for statewide office. "There are people contributing six figures" at a time, he said.
One need not go too far for evidence. On June 29, 2001, the Barona tribe gave Tom Umberg, then a Democratic candidate for state Insurance Commissioner, a check for $300,000, according to campaign documents filed with the Secretary of State. Umberg lost to John Garamendi in the March 2002 Democratic primary.
And it's not just the candidates and politicians who are making off with the green. "Lawyers and lobbyists who represent Indian tribes are princes. They're royalty," the consultant said. "They're burning money. People are millionaires overnight."
In 2001 and 2002, the Barona tribe alone spent $192,263 on lobbyists, who are paid to work legislators and bureaucrats for favorable laws and regulations. The other three San Diego "major donor" tribes spent significantly less.
The concern, as is always the case when large amounts of money are introduced to the political process, is that the system of checks and balances is being compromised. "Regulators become captive of the regulated," the consultant said. "This system can't handle those amounts of money."
Many capitol eyebrows were raised a few years back when three tribes formed an alliance with the aforementioned prison guards, hands-down the most powerful special interest in Sacramento. The marriage came about because of a personal relationship forged by misfortune.
About 15 years ago, prison guard Les Macarro, a Luiseño Indian, was killed in the line of duty. Don Novey, who was then the president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, helped the Macarro family pick up the pieces financially. Les' brother Mark Macarro, now the tribal chairman of the Pechanga Band, went to Novey in the late '90s for help once again, this time in an attempt to work a gaming deal with former Gov. Pete Wilson. That led to formation of the Native Americans & Peace Officers Independent Expenditure Committee (NAPO), which combines the prison guards' immense power and the tribes' new wealth to create a formidable political force.
Along with the Pechanga Band, the Morongo Band and San Diego County's own Viejas Band pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into NAPO. From the beginning of 2000 to the end of 2002, the tree tribes kicked in $690,000. In the same time, the guards' union gave a little less than $496,000. During the year 2000, the earliest year for which records are available on the Secretary of State's website, Viejas alone contributed $165,000 to NAPO. Viejas has not contributed since, however.
Nikki Symington, a public-relations consultant for Viejas (whom CityBeat readers will get to know very well throughout the following XX pages), said the tribe hoped to gain valuable political advice from Novey through the association with NAPO, but, she said, that assistance is no longer needed.
Novey is considered one of Sacramento's shrewdest operators. Some say he can single-handedly end the career of the politician who crosses him. The Sacramento consultant interviewed by CityBeat said Novey literally strikes fear in even the strongest-willed politico. Novey enjoys easy access to the Governor.
Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee, one of the most highly respected political columnists in California, has written that Gov. Davis and the state of California have rolled over for the Indian tribes.
The tribes, Walters told CityBeat, "have become one of the two most powerful political influences on the Legislature (along with the prison guards' union), completely altering the dynamics of the Legislature at the same time they are essentially resisting, in legal actions, the insistence of the [Fair Political Practices Commission] that they report their campaign contributions-they want the unfettered ability to give as much money to as many politicians as they want without having to report it."
Walters is referring to a legal battle being waged between the FPPC and the Agua Caliente band over reporting of campaign contributions.
Attorney General Bill Lockyer declined to represent the state of California in the lawsuit. Between December 2001 and December 2002, Agua Caliente gave Lockyer's campaign war chest $85,000.
Jim Knox, executive director of Common Cause California, who filed a declaration on behalf of the FPPC in the lawsuit, stressed the importance of shining light on the campaign-finance process, particularly with big-time contributors like the gaming tribes, whose growth in political power "is phenomenal and unprecedented. Collectively, the tribes are the single largest campaign contributors in the state now. They contribute more than all the traditional powerhouses-more than the teachers, the doctors, the trial lawyers [and] the prison guards."
For their money, Knox said, the tribes are getting "unequaled access and influence with the Legislature and the governor with regard to gambling policies."
Specifically, Knox referred to the monopoly over slot machines that the tribes enjoy. The state's horse tracks and card clubs would love to be allowed to have slot machines. "And I think you can expect the Legislature to resist that because of the influence of the tribes," he said.
For better or worse, California handed the Indians that monopoly on a silver platter, but Davis' critics argue that he could have negotiated a much better deal for the state.
"Little thought was given to longer-term consequences of essentially establishing a new gambling industry in California," Walters said. "We were told at the time that it was going to be a modest increase in gambling, that it would simply be adding to the existing bingo parlors and small casinos out in rural areas. Instead, what we've gotten is gigantic, Las Vegas-style, full casinos that have opened up, with thousands of slot machines in some cases, and the Indians are making a very aggressive push to bring their gambling monopolies, which is what they are, into urban areas.
"Now, I'm not opposed to gambling," Walters continued, "and I'm not opposed to gambling in urban areas, but we didn't know what we were getting ourselves into, and politicians-particularly Davis-should have been aware of what the potential of this thing was, and if he was aware of it, he was either lying to us about what the potential of it was or he didn't know."
Walters said Davis could have negotiated for better environmental cooperation with local governments, tougher gaming regulations and perhaps a cut of the gaming profits for the general fund. Other states, notably New York and Connecticut, receive substantial amounts of money from gaming revenue.
"There are a thousand things that he could have done to do this right," Walters said. "One could say, under the circumstances, he had to do it because they had gotten the ballot measure passed, but he could have been very tough about negotiating the best deal possible for 35 million Californians. Instead, he clearly-clearly-rolled over and gave them everything they asked for."
Under the current compacts, tribes can have as many as 2,000 slot machines and up to two casinos per reservation. The state gets some money from revenue for gambling-addiction programs, reimbursement to local governments for environmental costs and reimbursement for state regulatory costs. Gaming tribes must also share revenues with non-gaming tribes.
Some tribes are expected to take advantage of a clause in their compacts that allow them to reopen negotiations with the state this month. A dozen or so of them will likely seek a higher cap on the number of slots and perhaps some sort of green light for urban casino development. Davis has said that in exchange, he wants money-up to $1.5 billion for the crippled state general fund. Some tribal representatives have scoffed at that figure.
Davis can attempt to negotiate for some of the provisions his critics say he should have received the first time, Walters said, but "the state's hand is much, much weaker than it would have been three or four years ago."
Viejas consultant Symington countered that the tribes have done their best to be good neighbors. And they gave the state the money and a mechanism to fund problem-gambling programs and county reimbursement for environmental mitigation, but the state has yet to implement those projects.
And remember, said Symington, economic development has been restricted to the reservations, which are out in the middle of nowhere. How else besides gambling, she asks, were the tribes expected to draw people and their money to the reservations? Everything else can be had closer to home. "In 200 years," she said, "they have not found any business that will get people to drive."
Symington acknowledges that the tribes have grown immeasurably in political stature. "Politically strong? I think yes," she said. "I think the tribes have a lot of friends in the Legislature on both sides of the aisle. [But] I don't buy the argument that... we own everybody, including the Governor.
"I think what people need to understand is every city and county in the state has an institutionalized lobbyist in their delegation-in their state assemblymen and their state senators. Those people are there to represent the constituents and the local governments. Well, tribes are governments, but they have no institutionalized representation. We don't have people going to the Legislature on our behalf that are elected and are part of the institution. So to protect our interests, we make contributions and we hire people, just like corporations."
And, Symington said, it's about time the Indians had some friends in high places.
"I can remember when we started going to the state Legislature in 1990," she said, "and I can remember even in San Diego County, you'd say, "Eighteen tribes? They got what? Who? Where? I never heard of 'em.' No-they were out there rotting, dying. They didn't have any mechanism. And then when we started going to Sacramento, we started hearing really strange things, like, "Gee, I didn't know any of this. I didn't know you guys were governments.'"
The gaming money, she said, "changed their sense of governance and certainly their sense of power. And we would be naïve, wouldn't we, to assume that the Legislature really cares a whole lot about a whole lot of poor people. Let's just say access is something you have when people perceive that you have power."