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California elections: all quiet on the western front

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. - After a succession of campaigns in which California American Indian issues have been at the forefront, a strangely eerie silence on the subject has fallen over the Golden State as it prepares for the Nov. 5 election.

Overall it has been a strange election year. With the state gaming compact due to be renegotiated next March, and the governor's seat, every Assembly seat and some Senate seats up for grabs, it is somewhat surprising that Indian issues have hardly been broached at all.

Public disgust with the two main candidates for governor is at an all-time high. Democratic Gov. Gray Davis has taken heat for mishandling the state's energy crisis and raising millions of dollars in campaign funds. Some of Davis' critics have claimed these large donations effected his executive decisions.

At the same time, Republican William Simon Jr.'s campaign seems hell-bent on implosion. During the second of two debates, one sponsored by the Los Angeles Times and the only one Davis bothered to attend, Simon accused Davis of accepting a cash donation while at his office in the state capitol, which is illegal. Simon claimed that he had proof.

The "proof" turned out to be a picture of the governor, smiling broadly, and holding a large donation check with a wealthy donor, the former leader of a lobbying group ironically called COPS, who supplied the photo.

Apparently COPS did not do a proper investigation of where the snapshot was taken, and it was soon determined that the photo was taken at the donor's house and not the state capitol, which is legal.

Since the campaign focus has been on the candidates' follies many perennial issues such as education, abortion and weapons have taken a back seat and have left many voters listless. Green Party candidate Peter Miguel Comejo is actually leading both Davis and Simon in Mendocino County and is polling around nine percent in the San Francisco Bay Area.

All of this does not leave much room for American Indian issues. For the first time sine 1996 there are no Indian gaming measures on the ballot and the passage of Propositions 5 and 1A along with an overturned legal challenge earlier this year, has, at least for the moment, placed the larger issue of California Indian gaming on stable ground.

Other issues, important to tribes such as a bill recently vetoed by Gov. Davis calling for sacred site protection were fought in the state legislature. Though tribes were not happy with the veto, Davis managed to assuage fears by saying he would fight for some of the central tenets of the bill, thus avoiding tribal hostility during the campaign.

Two separate debates involving gubernatorial candidates have not once mentioned the compact or any other Indian issues. The first one, in Beverly Hills in September between Green Party Candidate Comejo and Republican Bill Simon offered not a word about the state's tribes. Perhaps this is more surprising because New California Media, a group of minority journalists, sponsored the event.

"Yeah, it was kind of strange. They talked about issues related to African-Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos and Arab-Americans, but Indigenous issues were never brought up," said Tyler Snortum-Phelps, Peter Camejo's campaign manager.

Though Snortum-Phelps blames the foibles of both the mainstream candidates, he also criticizes the Green Party, who he feels should be a natural fit with American Indians, for not doing enough to keep Indian issues in public view.

Neither the Davis nor Simon campaigns returned phone calls from Indian Country Today.

Catherine Black, who works for Pacific News Service, one of the groups associated with New California Media, cites constraints in finding a broad cross section of California. She also says members of the panel asking the questions mainly focused on their own ethnic groups.

Agreement comes from spokeswoman Susan Jensen of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, which does not endorse candidates. She adds, "The issues are still there, but they have moved more to the local as opposed to the statewide level."

Jensen points to local issues such as the fight between the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians and San Diego Gas and Electric over a proposed power line that would come within feet of one of the tribe's most sacred sites.

San Pascual Chairman Allen Lawson says that the main issue affecting the tribes right now is the re-negotiation of the gaming compacts in March. Lawson describes the political quiet on Indian issues as a lull. When asked if he felt that the united coalition that tribes have presented to the state is beginning to become obsolete, Lawson gave an unequivocal "no."

"We're still doing things together as a group right now, but right now, it's more behind the scenes. We're just working out our own issues right now before we have to go to the state," said Lawson.

Jensen and Lawson say that since tribes in California are small and scattered and are sovereign entities in themselves, local issues more typically play a bigger role. Lawson says issues beyond gaming such as infrastructure and other local issues are typically more important to tribes.