Indian Tribes Gain Political Ground at State Capitol

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(Sacramento, CA)
Monday, March 6, 2006
The incident that prompted Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to make his accusation occurred in the state Assembly at the end of last session.  Two large, powerful gaming tribes and their lobbyists managed to convince assembly members to kill two gambling compacts the governor had already negotiated with smaller tribes.  Maurice Lyons, with the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, was one of the people behind the push to kill the compacts.   
“We were never able to be as active as we are now,” he says. ”What gaming has done is give us the financial backing to become politically astute.”
Politics, tribes and Indian gaming are inextricably linked. In the year 2000, when California voters passed Prop 1A, tribes who used to be cash poor were finally able to negotiate gambling compacts with the state.
Casinos, like Thunder Valley Casino near Sacramento. have brought millions of dollars to some tribes....and these gaming tribes are now able to hire lobbyists and other experts to help them maneuver in Sacramento.  In 1999, eleven tribes employed lobbyists. Now 33 tribes do.   Tribes, for years, have contributed big money to political campaigns and to ballot initiatives. But for the first time ever, they are now directly influencing the state legislature.  Democratic state Senator Dean Florez is head of the Senate’s Governmental Organization committee which handles Indian affairs. He says these days he is constantly approached by tribal chairmen and tribal lobbyists.
 “The tribes who do have established casinos are obviously, like the thousands of interest groups, part and parcel of who legislator talk to and see every day,” says Florez.  “To say that they’re not in Sacramento, that they’re not lobbying, I think from any legislator, would be an absolute mistruth.”
The lobbying of the state legislature on the compact deals by Lyon’s tribe represented a new step forward for Indians in Sacramento, according to attorney Howard Dickstein, who represents some of the biggest and wealthiest tribes in the state.  
“It opened up the world of involvement of tribes in state politics,” says Dickstein.  ”There had been some involvement up to that time with issues relating to artifacts and burial sites, but it wasn’t really anything that attracted much attention, especially in the legislature.”
There are 107 federally recognized Indian tribes in California and 55 currently have gaming, giving them the money and the power to be political players in this state.
Attorney Kevin Gover, who has represented Indian tribes for the past 15 years and kept a close eye on Indian politics in California, agrees tribes are now engaging lawmakers in a way they haven’t before. 
“Much of the news about Indian country is now coming out of California,” according to Gover. “It’s clear to me there’s been a major shift in how Indian Tribal Governments are perceived in California politics.”
Smaller non-gaming tribes, without vast financial resources, are also influencing the state legislature in a way they haven’t before.  Margie Mejia with the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians has resorted to grassroots efforts and one-on-one meetings with lawmakers to get her lobbying done.  Mejia put 88 thousand miles on her car in one year, driving up and down the state, meeting with legislators and pushing Indian causes. She says learning to work with state lawmakers is crucial to her tribe’s existence.
“You have to go out there and you have to learn,” she says. “Tribe snow have a way to provide for their people and they’re going to do what they need to do to advocate to continue to do that.”
Mejia’s grassroots political efforts are becoming more common in Sacramento, according to Jerome Horton, chair of the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee, which also oversees Indian affairs.
“I think the tribes are far more sophisticated. The elected officials are very articulate, are very knowledgeable about the issues. They understand the law and how it applies to them.”  
How the tribes will play their hand in the upcoming governor’s race remains to be seen.
Tim Hodson, Executive Director of the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State, says the tribes will make their presence known with their gaming proceeds:
“Gaming tribes will play a role in the 2006 elections because they have emerged over the years as one of the largest sources of campaign contributions.”
But Bob Waste, a professor with the Institute for Government Studies at Sacramento State, says it’s going to take more than money to influence the governor’s race -- the tribes will have to do grassroots efforts with the voters and perhaps team up with other powerful special interests groups.
They’ve entered a new generation of where it’s not just nouveau riche and you have  a  lot of money. They’ve gone to the second phase where they’re powerful enough to stop a key piece of legislation. The next step would be if they could be a force that could elect a governor single handedley.
So far, no tribe has made a huge contribution to any candidate or party.
Republican Governor Schwarzenegger will not accept donations from tribes, claiming it is a conflict of interest, since he must negotiate compacts with them. But tribes could donate to the Republican party, which could run ads of benefit to Schwarzenegger.
Both Democratic gubernatorial candidates State Controller Steve Westly and State Treasurer Phil Angelides are accepting donations from tribes.