Skip to main content

Tribes uncertain as recall madness sweeps California


SACRAMENTO, Calif. - As most of the nation is now aware, an effort using an obscure century old law to recall Gov. Gray Davis has succeeded in California precipitating one of the most bizarre political episodes in California history.

The outcome of this recall has profound effects for Indian country. Tribes must work closely with whoever is governor for a wide variety of reasons including various forms of legislation that must ultimately be signed by the governor to negotiating and re-negotiating gaming deals with the state, a process that is currently under way.

The recall came on so quickly that most tribes and tribal organizations have not yet been able to reach a decision on how to best address the recall. Several tribes have been meeting this week to figure out how to handle the recall and no tribes at press time had made a formal announcement on whether they would support the recall or which candidate to endorse in the event that the recall passes.

Susan Jensen, a spokeswoman for the California Indian Nations Gaming Association (CNIGA), a tribal lobbying group, said that her organization does not take specific positions on candidates and is unclear whether the issue will even be addressed at their monthly meeting scheduled for later in the month.

"The tribes will deal with this individually and will make their own decisions based on their own needs and goals," said Jensen.

The various campaigns have also largely not taken on specifics on Indian issues save for the prior records of incumbent politicians. For example, Celia Alario, a press spokeswoman for columnist and author Arianna Huffington, a former Republican turned progressive, said that the candidate had not had time to think through questions posed on Indian issues but promised to have something of substance in the next few weeks.

Other campaigns, including that of actor/cultural icon turned Republican candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger, simply did not respond.

Complicating matters is the unique way in which the recall works and how it is being exploited by everyone from a wealthy Republican actor, to disgruntled progressives to Democratic politicians that have long despised Davis.

The problem is that other than Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), none of the other major candidates have had much involvement or have worked directly with Indian country, save for some very minor charitable work by Schwarzenegger and perhaps some pictorials with an American Indian theme of questionable taste and value in Hustler publisher Larry Flynt's magazine.

Bustamante, who opposes the recall but is running as an insurance candidate should it pass, has long enjoyed a warm and close relationship with tribes. While a member of the State Assembly Bustamante openly opposed the much-reviled Pala Compact signed by Gov. Pete Wilson which tribes felt sacrificed too much sovereignty. A few of the larger gaming tribes came under fire from the California Fair Political Practices Committee earlier this year for non-disclosure of campaign contributions to the Lt. Governor.

Part of Bustamate's appeal to tribes, is personal. Bustamante was born into poverty and worked in the agricultural fields when he was young eventually worked his way up to be Speaker of the Assembly and the first Latino Lt. Governor. His meteoric rise from poverty mirrors that of several of the state's tribal leaders.

One source, who is very close to Indian gaming in California at the highest levels, describes McClintock's relationship with tribes as "cordial" but not overly close.

That same source also said that though several tribes are leaning toward supporting Bustamante, they are also wary of alienating any of the other candidates who might be potential allies.

Tribal Donations

to Bustamante

The Viejas and Sycuan tribes are rumored to be in discussions with their lawyers in order to not have a redux of the FPPC flap and clear the way to forming a political action committee for tribes to donate to Bustamante. California law allows for a much larger amount of money to be filtered through political action committees than individual donors.

In fact reports in the California media have made reference to Bustamante's close ties with tribes as being financially helpful for his campaign. It should be noted however, that Bustamante's sole source of income is his salary of slightly less than $130,000 a year and does not have, for example, the personal wealth of Schwarzenegger or Huffington.

The Sacramento Bee reports that Bustamante has received about $97,000 from casino tribes for slightly less than 15 percent of his total campaign take thus far in 2003.

The only other candidate with any previous formally declared policy toward American Indians is last year's Republican nominee for governor, Bill Simon, who lost to Davis in the general election last year. After months of silence on the matter, Simon met with tribal leaders late in last year's campaign and said that he supported the basic principles of tribal sovereignty and as a supporter of the free market said that he would support Indian gaming as an alternative to welfare.

The source said that Simon's declaration came too late and his ties to Southern California conservatives who traditionally oppose gaming made most tribes wary of giving Simon their support.

Though eroded over recent clashes, Gov. Davis still enjoys significant support from tribes particularly those who are represented by prominent lawyer Howard Dickstein.

Dickstein confirms that his tribes oppose the recall but, given the format of the recall in which voters are allowed to pick a replacement even if they vote against the recall, Dickstein said his tribes have not yet selected a replacement candidate in the event the recall goes through.

Tribal support for Davis largely hinges on two issues. The first is who Davis will pick for the Gambling Control Committee to replace the unpopular former chairman John Hensley.

The second issue is whether or not Davis will relent and offer tribes seeking gaming agreements, such as Torres Martinez and the Yurok tribes, the same version of gaming agreements that most other tribes originally signed in 2000.

Yurok and Torres Martinez have complained publicly in the past few weeks that the governor is offering them significantly different deals than tribes had been offered before Davis imposed a freeze on gaming compacts in 2001.

If Davis were to make decisions favorable to the tribes in these areas it could possibly strengthen tribal support for his retention.

Davis has made some legislative overtures to tribes in recent months including supporting legislation that protects sacred sites in California. Just last week, Davis also signed a bill that would transfer money from one fund set up by tribal gaming money to compensate local governments for infrastructure improvements necessitated by Indian casinos to make up for shortfalls promised to small casino and non-gaming tribes. The non-gaming tribes had complained that the slightly over $400,000 payments were far short of the $1.1 million that had been promised.

Granted that Davis can not control when a bill hits his desk, but some in the capitol are questioning the timing of Davis' pro-tribal posturing. Davis' spokeswoman Amber Pasricha insists that Davis' signing of the fund transfer bill had nothing to do with politics and insists that her boss had been working to settle the issue long before the recall.

Given the format of the law, anyone with $3,500 in cash and 65 signatures can get their name on the ballot to run for chief executive of the fifth largest economy on planet earth. Perhaps not surprisingly, as of Aug. 15, 135 people have done just that meaning that the field is conceivably crowded enough for someone to theoretically win the governorship with less than 10 percent of the vote.

The problem, for Gov. Davis is that he would have to gain 50 percent of the vote in order to stay in office, something that he does not think is fair and he and his allies have filed various lawsuits to prevent or delay the recall and to allow himself to be a replacement candidate for governor.

Adding to the surreal atmosphere of a candidate slate that includes ferret owners and billboard sex symbols as well as Hustler Magazine Publisher Flynt and troubled former child actor Gary Coleman, candidates not regarded by the media as "serious" is the fact that the Republican front runner is actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Schwarzenegger has garnered the support of some heavy hitters in the Republican party, including former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan who lost the Republican nomination last year to another political novice, Bill Simon who was in turn defeated by Gray Davis in the general election.

While vacationing at his home in Crawford, Texas last week President Bush also gave Schwarzenegger a tepid endorsement by saying that the Austrian-born actor would make a "good governor."

What is perhaps a troubling sign to tribes is the fact that Schwarzenegger has picked former Gov. Pete Wilson to be his campaign chairman. Wilson was a staunch opponent of Indian gaming and he supported the Pala Compact during his tenure as governor.

However, Dickstein said that tribes have not written off Schwarzenegger altogether and would wait to hear what his policies are on tribal issues.

"Arnold (Schwarzenegger) is his own man, I don't think that he'll make his decisions on Indian policy based on Pete Wilson."

Though the Schwarzenegger campaign has received some weighty endorsements and has been long on media hoopla, the man who is perhaps most famous for playing the "Terminator" has been short on specifics, other than a previously professed liberal bent on a few social issues.

His stances on other more specific policy issues, such as how to bridge the state's $8 billion deficit or how he will approach tribal issues are unknown. Schwarzenegger has generally responded to questions about these kinds of issues with vague proclamations about "cleaning house" in Sacramento.

Though Schwarzenegger has been compared to Ronald Reagan the analogy is not entirely appropriate considering that the former president had political experience as the head of the Screen Actor's Guild and had been involved in political projects for at least a decade prior to his 1966 candidacy for governor.

A poll done by a Democratic group late last week and reported in the Los Angeles Times showed that Davis losing the recall vote and Bustamante being within striking distance of Schwarzenegger, who currently has the support of about 25 percent of California voters.