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Rift over California casino debate casts shadow on tribal forum

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By Aaron C. Davis -- Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - The organizer of a Democratic presidential forum that is expected to draw American Indian leaders from around the country to southern California said opposition from a labor union has prompted top contenders to shy away from attending.

The fate of the event, called ''Prez on the Rez'' by its organizers, has become embroiled in a California political dispute sparked by wealthy gaming tribes' attempt to expand their casino operations.

Labor unions, close allies of the Democrats who control the state Legislature, are opposed to most of the tribes' efforts because they say the expansion deals will make it more difficult to organize casino workers.

The event is scheduled for Aug. 23 and promises to attract 2,500 tribal leaders and political organizers from more than 500 reservations nationwide.

A campaign official with one of the top Democratic candidates alerted Democratic National Committee members to the union opposition in early May, said Kalyn Free, head of the Tulsa, Okla.-based nonprofit sponsoring the forum.

Free, a DNC member, has since flown to California and held meetings with union officials in an unsuccessful attempt to get their support. She said she also offered to let them co-sponsor it.

Only New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sen. Mike Gravel have confirmed. Free said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards have yet to commit to the event, sponsored by the Indigenous Democratic Network List Education Fund. Calls to all three campaigns were not immediately returned May 24. [Editor's note: A May 30 release from Prez on the Rez announced that Clinton would not be attending the event.]

DNC spokesman Luis Miranda said he could not immediately confirm if committee members had been contacted by campaigns about the southern California forum. He did say the DNC has been generally supportive of Free's group and has worked with her in the past.

''It's up to the candidates to determine if they can make it to this forum or not,'' he said.

At stake for the candidates are potentially millions of dollars in campaign contributions from tribes that operate casinos, as well as access to Indian voters in key states.

''These tribal leaders are going to remember who came to Prez on the Rez, and who didn't,'' Free said. ''They've already said to me if Senator Clinton, Senator Obama and Senator Edwards refuse to come, what can we expect from them when they are in the White House?''

The event will be held on the reservation of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, which operates a casino west of Palm Springs.

Morongo is one of several wealthy southern California tribes that struck deals with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to greatly expand their casino operations in exchange for giving the state a share of their profits.

Under the deals with the governor, five tribes would add 22,500 slot machines, a near 40 percent increase in California's $7 billion a year tribal gaming industry.

The deals passed the Senate but have stalled in the Assembly, where majority Democrats are listening to the concerns of organized labor.

To pressure the Assembly into approving the casino expansion, the Morongo tribe launched a $20 million television advertising campaign that targeted the districts of key lawmakers. So far, that has only further angered Democrats in the Legislature.

Free, a former Justice Department lawyer who ran as a Democratic candidate for Congress from Oklahoma in 2004, said she was unaware that her group would run into a political maelstrom when she selected the Morongo reservation for the site of the political conference.

Free said she is frustrated the forum has been caught up in the conflict.

''We unwittingly stepped into this,'' she said.

The nonprofit is a sister organization to her independent campaign committee, the Indigenous Democratic Network.

A spokesman for the Morongo tribe did not immediately return a telephone call at press time.

Despite the rift between the tribe and union, Jack Gribbon, California political director for Unite Here, said the union might be more supportive of the event if the tribes and unions strike a deal in the Legislature.

''Right now, if candidates were reluctant to attend because they were concerned about workers' right to organize, I would admire them for that,'' Gribbon said.

With the Democratic candidates being bombarded with invitations to speak, it's unlikely they would attend an event that is potentially controversial, said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.

''You have two very powerful interests that the Democrats want to appeal to; the traditional allies in the labor unions versus the Indians, who are the new allies - or at least the people with a lot of money right now. It's a no-win situation,'' Stern said.

Free, a member of the Choctaw tribe of Oklahoma, said she is planning get-out-the-vote efforts for Indians in some early primary states next year.

She said she will invite Republican candidates to the forum if the party's top contenders don't commit to the summer conference.

''Whoever comes, this is going to be a historic opportunity,'' Free said.