By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Dozens of California politicians, from both parties, have benefited from tribal largess for the better part of the last decade.
Millions were given to Gray Davis. Hundreds of thousands have been given to state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton. Almost a million went to Attorney General Bill Lockyer. Republican state Senator Jim Battin, who represents the casino-rich Coachella Valley, gets almost all of his funding from the tribes. When he served in the Assembly, former Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa was a favorite recipient of Indian funding. But when he ran for mayor of Los Angeles in 2001, he was torpedoed by a $200,000 smear campaign, financed by the Palm Springs–area Morongo tribe, which had been angered by his pro-union voting record. “Antonio learned the hard way what it meant to cross the tribes,” says the Capitol consultant. “They massacred him.”
But for all their political juice, the tribes ran pretty much under the public political radar — that is, until the treacherous turns of California gubernatorial politics thrust the tribal casinos front and center.
Not long after Proposition 1A ratified the tax-free Indian casinos, Gray Davis began to regret the sweetheart deals he had inked. In early 2003, Davis re-assessed the terrain: State deficits were mounting, his political career was swooning, the whisper about recall was becoming audible, and tribal receipts were skyrocketing. Davis announced he wanted to reopen the 20-year compacts he had signed only four years before. Some sort of expansion would be authorized, but in return Davis wanted $1.5 billion back in casino revenues to help fill up the state’s bare coffers.
“We were ready to work out something, why not?” says one tribal representative. “We were willing to pay back something reasonable if we could get more [slot] machines beyond the limit of 2,000.” Twenty-one tribes said they were ready to renegotiate.
The roar of recall soon washed away the renegotiation effort. Davis, struggling to hang on to his job, backed down, preferring to take another round of tribal contributions.
One out of five dollars spent on the 2003 recall election came from Indian tribes, with a total of $9 million given to Davis, to Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante and to conservative State Senator Tom McClintock. Just two Southern California gambling tribes, the Pechangas and the Viejas, dropped a jackpot $4.5 million into Bustamante’s campaign coffers.
Such egregious tribal involvement was a crass political error that has boomeranged against the Indian gaming industry.
The tribes, perceived by the public until the recall campaign as long-standing victims finally making good, now, seemingly overnight, transformed themselves into seemingly one more high-visibility, insider special interest and one more political target.
Rumsey Chairwoman Paula Lorenzo agrees that the recall was a historic political turning point. While her tribe prudently stayed far from the fray, limiting itself to one modest $25,000 donation to Governor Davis, she knew that trouble was brewing from the millions forked out by some other tribes. “It was a gross amount of money they flashed,” she says. “And now we all have to pay for it. It just wasn’t thought out. This is the big leagues, you know. And just having a lot of money to throw around doesn’t mean you have to stop paying attention.”
Schwarzenegger certainly was paying attention. “To be honest, Arnold didn’t go into the recall planning to make the Indians and getting some money back from them all that big of an issue,” says one of the governor’s close advisers. “But Arnold knows an opening when he sees one. And this opening was about as big as they get.”
The Terminator struck back at the tribes financing Davis and Bustamante, and promised, loudly, that if elected he would get tough and force the wealthy Indian tribes to start kicking back a fair share of their earnings to the state — as much as 25 percent, as in Connecticut.
Soon after the new governor took office late last year, he made good on his promise and named David Kolkey as his tribal negotiator — a Bay Area lawyer who had been a gambling negotiator for Pete Wilson. Kolkey’s mission was to hone a strategy that would allow the state to shape and harness the inevitable expansion of gambling.
And that expansion, indeed, had become inevitable, no matter what Schwarzenegger did or didn’t do. Racetrack and non-Indian card-club interests were crafting their own ballot measure, Prop. 68, which would allow them to install slot machines in their facilities, thereby breaking the Indian monopoly — that is, by the terms of the measure, if the Indians didn’t contribute 25 percent of their take to the state. Passage of 68 would mean more casinos.
Some powerful Indian tribes, meanwhile, were not about to sit back and surrender the future to others. The Agua Caliente Band, in Palm Springs, began fashioning its own ballot measure, Prop. 70, which would jump the gun on Schwarzenegger by allowing a virtually unchecked expansion of Indian gaming and return a smaller payment to the state than that demanded by the governor.
By the time of Schwarzenegger’s inauguration, the three-sided battle over the future of California gambling was joined.