SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Every four years we are subjected to a ritual undertaking by the political establishment. Even on the reservations it is hard to escape the hubbub of politics during an election year. Candidates will parade themselves in a flurry and television and radio broadcasts will be full of mudslinging, charges and countercharges.
During this time the candidates will try to convince the voters that they and their parties best represent their interests and like a snake oil salesman will try to wrest both votes and money from whichever constituency they might be addressing.
In some states, such as New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma and South Dakota it is largely Indian votes that the candidates seek because Indians make up significant voting blocs in these states. This was evidenced in 2002 in South Dakota when Democratic Senator Tim Johnson squeaked to victory largely because of the Indian vote, which subsequently became a source of controversy in the aftermath of that election.
Despite having more American Indians than any other state, California's Indian population makes up only a very small percentage of the state's total and have largely been ignored over the years by politicians seeking either statewide or national offices.
However, with the advent of large-scale gaming, Indians have become major players in California politics because of the potential size of their cash donations. However, sometimes this can backfire as in the case of Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante's unsuccessful recall bid for governor when tribes donated to his campaign in record amounts and suffered through an avalanche of bad publicity.
Despite the Bustamante debacle, tribes are still political players in California and face a host of issues in the coming year. Though all of the statewide offices have been filled in California until 2006, there are still many issues that California Indians face when they go to select candidates in March and November this next year.
The makeup of the California legislature will be decided in November as well as an important Senate race and of course the race for the presidency cannot be underestimated for its impact on Indian country.
Up for re-election this year is Sen. Barbara Boxer, who has close ties to tribes. Though she has already won re-election once, some Republicans see her seat as vulnerable and believe that they might have a chance if they nominate a moderate to oppose her.
Though California legislators are subject to term limit most of the legislators regarded as tribal allies will not be affected this year. However, at least one key legislator, Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, will be forced to step down next November.
In wake of the departure via recall of Gov. Gray Davis, Burton is now the most powerful Democrat in the state and has authored much key tribal legislation in the legislature. His departure will leave a power vacuum at the top and Burton leaves no clear successor.
Despite being eligible to run all members of the lower house of the legislature, or Assembly still have to run. The state legislature received lower marks than Gray Davis did in opinion polls and it is unclear if this will have an effect on next year's vote.
One Assembly race in 2004 will be of particular interest to tribes. Former Morongo chairwoman Mary Ann Andreas will run for an Assembly seat, thus trying to be the first American Indian to do so. Andreas is a centrist Democrat that will be running in a fairly Republican district and the outcome of her race will likely attract attention and resources from tribes statewide.