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Republicans court American Indian vote in California Summit

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ONTARIO, Calif. -- Several prominent California Indian leaders met with some of the state's top Republican politicians to open a dialogue on tribal issues at California Indian Nations Summit.

The Aug. 17 meeting was the first summit for the two groups. The California Republican Party has been under fire for losing political clout in the Golden State. In recent elections the Republicans saw numbers dwindle in the state Legislature, which they controlled as recently as the mid-1990s.

In a state as increasingly diverse as California, the GOP is still trying to recover from image problems with minority voters that beset the party during the 1990s. Former Gov. Pete Wilson's stances on immigration and tribal gaming, for example, remain fresh in the memories of many of the state's Latinos and American Indians.

Host Republicans tried to set a new tone at the meeting with Sen. Jim Battin, R- Palm Desert, making repeated references to his own political departures from Wilson, including his opposition to the much-reviled, Wilson-supported Pala Compact.

Battin made a straightforward bid for the American Indian vote in California. After speaking to the crowd, Battin told Indian Country Today he feels Republicans are more in line philosophically with American Indians.

"The tribes basically want the same things that are core Republican values. They want limited government and they want to be able to have the opportunity to generate wealth. That is the essence of being a Republican," Battin said.

Battin added that he feels tribes fared better under Republican presidential administrations. To back up his claim, he cites Nixon's re-recognition of several tribes, Reagan's support of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and the first President Bush's signing of the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act.

California Senate minority leader Jim Brulte, R-Rancho Cucamonga, helped organize the conference with his assistant, tribal liaison David Quintana. Brulte said the summit was designed not to set an agenda on issues so much as a way to open a dialogue to make the state Republican leadership aware of the issues facing American Indians.

During speeches, both Brulte and Battin tried to emphasize the fact many American Indian issues are actually bipartisan concerns. Battin pointed out he has worked with Democratic Assemblyman Tony Cardenas, D-Mission Hills, on a number of American Indian issues. He also noted the bipartisan nature of supporters of many pro-tribal bills in both the California Legislature and United States Congress.

The Republican leadership used the forum to criticize Democratic Gov. Gray Davis' moratorium on signing any new gaming compacts. Battin called Davis' policy "wholly unfair" and singled out the non-compacted Torres-Martinez tribe as an example of how tribes are being denied economic opportunity.

On the issue of economic opportunity, there was a presentation to encourage tribes to consider building power plants on their reservations. Mark Hollenbacher, a representative of Calpine, an energy producer which has teamed up with Torres-Martinez to build a new power generating facility spoke of potential economic advantages of locating a power plant on tribal lands.

Bobbie Fletcher, the Calpine project coordinator for the Torres-Martinez tribe, testified to the success thus far of that tribe's partnership with Calpine. "Torres-Martinez is very happy and satisfied with this project."

The presentation contained a list of proposed laws that would help expedite building new power plants on tribal lands, including House and Senate Indian energy bills.

Not everyone welcomed the project proposal. Many representatives from poorer Northern California-based tribes made comments critical of the power proposal during an open forum that followed the presentation.

Marcy Becerra, a Lytton Pomo tribal member from Sonoma County, said she thought the Republicans were missing the mark. She spoke of the chronic under funding for the federal Indian Child Welfare Act and lightly rebuked the power proposal.

"The only thing I know about energy is when I receive the bill in the mail," Becerra said.

Ignoring the power pitch, Joseph Saulque, a Benton Paiute, offered the Republicans a laundry list of California Indian issues. He stressed the plight of unrecognized tribes in California and their ongoing struggle for federal recognition. After mentioning a host of other current California Indian issues, Saulque criticized gaming tribes and the state for not making what he believes are timely and sufficient payments to non-gaming tribes.

"Everyone just seems to want more money," Saulque said.

Laura Lawson, a Paiute tribal member living in Northern California, also was dubious of the proceedings and said she felt a bit disappointed in the lack of specific agreements.

"My question is, 'What are the Republicans going to do?' This meeting is all smiles and glad hands but there aren't any commitments," Lawson said.

In response, Brulte re-emphasized Battin's statement that the meeting was meant only to make the Republican leadership aware of issues facing California Indians. On the issue of non-gaming tribes not receiving payment, he blamed Gov. Davis and pointed out that the Republicans and Battin in particular have been trying to get the Davis administration to release the money.

Brulte also said the reason for the energy plant presentation was based on his office's internal polling of issues tribes wanted on the agenda.

"I feel that this is a good situation for the tribes. We have a power crisis and they (the tribes) are looking for economic development," Brulte said.

However, various critics of the proposal at the conference remarked cynically that the reason the Republicans are pushing hard for new power plants on tribal lands is because they are running out of other land on which to place new facilities.

Though tribal gaming was largely put on the back burner, the peripheral issue of taking land into trust was a centerpiece of the conference. It came on the heels of a Bush administration decision to delay land-to-trust regulations passed in the final hours of the Clinton presidency.

John Gomez, who works at the Pechanga Cultural Resources Center, addressed the issue in a summit presentation. He stressed the non-gaming related issues of taking land into trust and addressed the cultural need to protect resources on tribal lands and asked that all American Indian treaty rights be restored.

"We need to protect our sacred sites," Gomez said.

Agua Caliente tribal chairman and Republican Party member Richard Milanovich said he felt the issue should be framed in a proper historical context. He retold the history of the Cahuilla people, of whom the Agua Caliente Band is part. He related a common story of how the land was taken, divided and eventually sold off. Most importantly, he stressed that the land was never actually ceded to the United States.

"We never had the opportunity to say, 'This is our home,'" Milanovich said.

Moreover, when he tied the issue to American Indian gaming, Milanovich pointedly told the crowd that his Agua Caliente tribe donates some $25 million to various local governmental entities in lieu of taxes. Brulte, standing next to Milanovich, signaled agreement by nodding his head.

Though no direct promises were made, the conference signaled that the Democratic Party should not take the California Indian vote for granted. Some participants commented after the summit that money generated from gaming has been largely responsible for the interest of the political parties.

Tribal gaming consultant Michael Lombardi said he feels this is only half of the story. Though he agreed that increased money may be attractive to politicians of both parties, he underscored the fact Republicans have been trying to make inroads in other minority communities as well.

Lombardi pointed out that money is not the only factor, that because tribal gaming is popular with California voters politicians see it as an issue to get behind.

Additionally, Lombardi said he feels this summit marks the beginning of a new era in California Indian politics.

"This summit is an illustration of how California tribes have decided to pursue a bipartisan political approach with the California State Legislature. We're seeking friends on both sides of the aisle."