Former Bustamante advisor sounds off on election controversies

RIVERSIDE, Calif. - Standing on the periphery of the maelstrom that is now the Oct. 7 California gubernatorial election, Dr. Joely De La Torre, who served as special advisor on California Indians to Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante in 2002, has a lot to say about the recent controversies surrounding tribal participation and influence in mainstream politics, particularly tribal donations made to candidates.

Speaking from the Indian museum at Sherman Indian High School in Riverside, Calif., De La Torre, a descendant of the Pechanga Band of Luise?o Mission Indians and professor of American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University and lecturer of American Politics at the University of San Diego, said it bewilders some people that Indian support does not follow one particular party.

"American Indians have been known to not support one party over another, Democrat or Republican," she said. "We vote issue, so we don't care if you're an Independent, if you're Green Party, if you're Democrat or if you're Republican. We're going to look at candidates who support our issues."

De La Torre said California Indians found support in Bustamante, whom she characterized as a friend to the tribes by being actively involved in education, health care and social programs for the state's Indian population before gaming wealth arrived.

"He's been a champion to American Indians, [and] not just to American Indians but to many of the underserved, underprivileged groups. Because of [the] honesty and integrity he's shown to our tribal nations and to our communities, he's the obvious choice."

Alternatively, the other candidates have done nothing for Native Americans, she said. In spite of the fact Arnold Schwarzenegger met with tribal leaders last year for their financial support of Proposition 49, the after-school program initiative passed in 2002. "We all believed in it; we contributed. Has he done anything to support American Indians, to help American Indian youth set up after-school programming? Not to my knowledge. Was he concerned about our issues, our poverty rates, our suicide rates, our diabetes issues prior to tribal gaming? No. Very few politicians were concerned about our issues," De La Torre said.

I find it interesting, De La Torre said, that American Indians are being vilified for participating in the political process by making campaign contributions. She called the negative attention given to recent contributions to Bustamante and Republican Senator Tom McClintock political and economic racism.

John Stoos, deputy campaign director for McClintock, said they too are baffled by the negative attention since big money was spent by a union to stop McClintock in his race for state controller, "and nobody vilified them."

De La Torre said, "I think that now that we have joined the game and are willing to play by rules we did not create, people are now trying to change the rules or suggest some kind of negative connotation to our funds and resources. I think it's rather interesting that because tribes are now giving to particular political candidates, this is somehow seen as a negative rather than a positive. My only guess is that there's a sense of jealousy."

De La Torre rejects the charge that Bustamante will become the puppet of tribes who have donated to his campaign. If such a connection applies to the lieutenant governor, she explained, then it must apply to every politician in this country, including President Bush and his war chest of over $200 million for the next presidential election.

"Everything [we 're] are doing is within the letter of the law. There has been concern raised about where the money has gone and how the money is being used for the campaign. And I think you have to look at who's asking those questions, why they're asking those questions, what answer are they trying to get, and how are they trying to distort that [answer] in a negative way with the public," she said.

Rather than vilify California Indians, De La Torre said gubernatorial candidates like Schwarzenegger and Arianna Huffington should applaud them for creating more than 60,000 jobs in a financially-strapped state.

"? [N]ot only are we creating jobs, we're creating tax revenue; we pay into a special fund that helps the non-gaming tribes ? I don't remember the last time I heard from one of my Caucasian friends that they've received a check from Donald Trump or Bill Gates by virtue of being of European ancestry," she said.

She noted that Bustamante is running against multi-millionaires Schwarzenegger, Huffington and Larry Flynt, who have no limits on how much of their own money they can spend. Unless we want to promote the idea that only millionaires should run for public office, we must be willing to financially support them, De La Torre said.

"To have a Lt. Gov. who is not a multi-millionaire, who we support and who we want to see be successful ? we're going to have to give in order to equalize that playing field."

One way to participate in the political process is through financial contributions.

But recently, when large tribal donations to Bustamante's gubernatorial campaign drew criticism, he instead earmarked the donations to be used to stop Prop. 54 from passing - the initiative that would restrict the state from collecting racial data, also on the Oct. 7 ballot. Nevertheless, on Sept. 22, a Sacramento judge ruled Bustamante must send back unspent portions of the $3.8 million given to him by unions and gaming tribes.

In television ads opposing Prop. 54, Bustamante has been featured prominently; De La Torre praises his open stance against it. "He's the leading political figure opposed to it, as far as I know, and so it makes perfect sense for him to want to stand out in front and educate the populace about what is wrong with 54. And if he's going to use these political donations to do it, well I applaud him."

De La Torre is opposed to Prop. 54 because racial data is necessary to prove problems and inequities exist, she said. "If you don't show statistically and through standard research that there's a problem," she explained, "then there is no problem. It just becomes anecdotal stories. ? Most companies and corporations, government institutions and entities want to see hard data. If you can't provide that, then you don't have a problem."

For this reason, De La Torre wants to see racial data collection become even more specific since it encourages accuracy, and furthermore, lumping American Indians into the "other" category provides insufficient data.

"For years as an educator, I've been arguing for more accurate data collection," she said, "? by being put in the 'other' category, hard data for things like education and health care does not exist, and some of the social services that should be provided to our communities are not. If we're considered the 'other' category, then only generalizations can be made and generalizations don't solve the crisis that many of our American Indian people find themselves in."

De La Torre suspects the backers of Prop. 54 have an interest in maintaining the status quo "and not being responsive [or] creating equity in our society in education and health care or in promoting ideas such as equality, justice and basic human and civil rights." Proponents of 54 suggest a colorblind society, though they've done nothing to promote such a society, she said.

"In fact, the same people who support Prop. 54 are the same people who supported Prop. 209 (passed in 1997 prohibiting the state from giving preferential treatment based on race) ? which really did a number on limiting the ethnic minority population in the UC and CSU systems. ? I think looking at history, and looking at the [fact that the] same supporters of 209 are the same supporters of 54, I could only guess that these are individuals ? who are threatened by a change in demography, and who would like to secure their positions by arguing there is no problem with the 'other' [category] ?"

Without collecting racial data, De La Torre said, we would be unable to answer questions regarding who is graduating and who's not, who's winning government contracts and who's not, effectively marginalizing those who need help the most. Arguments in favor of Prop. 54 are inarticulate and illogical, she said; rather, find out who the financial backers are and that would reveal what Prop. 54 is really designed to achieve.

It seems that in discussing weighty matters, De La Torre's innate nature is to educate. And so she does. She sees the criticism of tribal campaign donations as having deep roots in a public education system that has failed to educate students about American Indians.

"So I think [those who] are shocked and confused about our current political positions," she said, "are people that never really understood us. You can't blame the individuals; you have to look at institutions. Our academic institutions have taught us little about the contributions of American Indians to our society. The founding of the U.S. Constitution is a great example of how one of this nation's founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, observed the tribal governance systems of the Iroquois Confederacy, of which he used as a foundation in writing the US Constitution ? But we're not taught that in public education. And I think that's where it all begins. If we can change educational institutions, starting with our young people, and really educate them as to the contributions of American Indians to this great democracy, then I think we can do away with a lot of misinformation and misconceptions about who we are as a people. I think it's going to take a political action, a social reconstruction to include American Indians in that dialogue. People are thirsty for that information. I think most non-Indians want accurate information, and I know when students arrive in my classes, they feel cheated that they weren't provided this information, which is a part of their history and government."

Although she's no longer an advisor to Bustamante, he appointed her to serve on an advisory board for implementing S. 41 - the state law to include California Indians into the K-12 curriculum. Even though the budget for this bill was cut drastically to $125,000 and moved from the auspices of the Department of Education to the State Librarian's office, De La Torre remains undaunted.

"No one can tell your story better than you can ? It's been a hard road to get our materials in the public schools and have our stories told [but] we are on our way to providing a fair, accurate and balanced curriculum for all of California's children."

Change begins with education, she said. Since people are essentially good, it's incorrect or lack of information that fuels misperceptions - the fear of the unknown; the fear of the other. Having more people understand Indian history and their current standing in society, "then maybe people will be much more understanding and understand our political character here," she explained.

But unfortunately, misinformation apparently still runs rampant. Sometime after the interview when Schwarzenegger began running television ads depicting gaming tribes as not paying taxes, De La Torre phoned to say the ads were untrue. It's a persistent myth that continues to circulate, she said, despite the fact that the majority of Indians pay the same taxes as everyone else does. If they live and work on a reservation, only then do they not pay state taxes. And in case it's escaped anyone's notice, there's not a plethora of factories and industries on reservations, she said, adding, "Some may argue that the special distribution fund tribes in California are obligated to pay into, which will exceed a $1 billion dollars in an 18-year period, is simply a tax." Additionally, tribes in California pay millions into a revenue-sharing fund which assists non-gaming tribes and tribes with less than 350 slot machines. The key to American Indian success in influencing policymaking rests on both American Indian participation and the re-education of Americans about them.

Calls to Huffington's and Schwarzenegger's campaign headquarters and e-mails to Bustamante's campaign were not returned before press time.