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Have gaming tribes bought California?

Unlike previous years, Indian gaming is an issue in just a couple of local
elections in California. But politicians and pundits are still using
inflammatory language when they talk about the state's tribes.

For many, raising the specter of Indians on the warpath is still a useful
tactic.

In September, an Irvine city council member sounded an alarm over
"salivating" Indian tribes and "relentless" gaming interests. A political
commentator wrote that the state's Indians are seeking gaming on "any land
the staggeringly rich gaming tribes can buy with acquiescence from
politicians." As he's done before, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger slammed the
first Americans, saying big tribes "control the legislators."

The supposedly liberal media joined the fray, with one newspaper claiming
that wealthy inland tribes -- not the state legislators who actually vote
-- had blocked two gaming compacts. Even public radio station KPCC confused
the issue by asking "Are Indian gaming and off-reservation casinos
beneficial to California?" in an online questionnaire, as if reservation
shopping is intrinsic to Indian gaming in California.

With all this anti-gaming and anti-Indian rhetoric, it's worth asking a
pointed question: "Have gaming tribes bought California?" The answer is no.
Tribes are getting a bum rap when it comes to the "buying influence"
charge.

The assertion that the tribes "bought Sacramento" to pass Proposition 5 in
1998 and Proposition 1A in 2000 remains specious. The money they spent went
into a public awareness campaign (TV commercials and so forth), not into
politicians' pockets. That's how the initiative process works -- and the
Indians played the game fair and square.

One could say Indians tried to influence the 2003 recall election by making
large donations to Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a longtime friend of Native
causes. The fallout from that election offers a cautionary tale for tribes
thinking of entering politics. But people should note two points:

For starters, the bulk of the donations came from one gaming tribe. There
was no concerted action among California's tribes, each of which is an
independent and sovereign nation. In fact, other tribes criticized these
donations as a public relations nightmare.

More important, Bustamante LOST. It's ridiculous to claim Indians are
buying the state capital when their candidates lose. Clearly, putting a
supportive politician in office takes more than just money: candidates have
to resonate with voters, no matter who's backing them financially.

California's tribes continue NOT to control Sacramento, despite their
occasional campaign contributions. The Legislature doesn't hesitate to kill
bills that tribes support avidly. Two recent examples are the bills that
would've protected sacred sites and banned Indian mascots. How exactly are
Indians subverting the state if they can't get their wish list passed?

As for gaming, either the governor or the Legislature can halt a casino
project that faces strong local opposition. Schwarzenegger's recent
decisions show that the system is working as it's supposed to. Despite the
lack of tribal contributions, he's approved some deals and rejected others.
It's difficult for gaming money to influence a sitting governor, and
there's little evidence that it has.

While the chattering classes attack Indians, other campaign expenditures
are getting less attention. As the Oct. 28 Los Angeles Times reported:

The nation's drug makers, shattering spending records on California
initiative campaigns, have poured $76.5 million into television ads,
mailings and other activities to persuade voters to embrace their cause on
the Nov. 8 ballot, reports filed with the state on Nov. 3 show.

The pharmaceutical industry's spending exceeds the $65 million that Indian
tribes spent in 1998 in an effort to legalize gambling on their
reservations.

So drug companies are spending a record amount to pass one proposition and
defeat another, but no one talks about "Big Pharma" buying Sacramento. Why
not? There are 100-plus Indian tribes in California and only a few big drug
makers, so the latter have more concentrated power. Why no righteous
pontificating about how corporate money is subverting our democracy and
endangering our children?

The answer is fairly obvious to anyone who has followed the politics of
gaming. The "buying influence" charge still has a whiff of racism about it.
Drug companies can spend millions on initiatives, and Schwarzenegger can
accept millions from business interests, but only Indians are the bogeyman
behind the tree.

Rob Schmidt is a freelance writer and editor for pechanga.net, the Internet
news source.