Tribal Politics

Newly flush with cash from casinos, US Native American tribes are dishing out millions of dollars to politicians across the country. Penny-ante players just 10 years ago, America's long-marginalized Indians may now be on their way to gaining serious political clout.

| Fri Jul. 28, 2000 2:00 AM EDT

Seventy-six years ago, American Indians didn't even enjoy the right to vote. But three generations later, tribes across the country are muscling their way into the political arena with unprecedented vigor. Their pockets newly fattened with billions in gambling revenue, Native tribes are dumping record sums into campaign coffers, and are diving into the high-stakes game of lobbying.

Nowhere have Indians taken a more prominent place on the political stage than California, birthing ground of so many national trends. Since 1998, Golden State tribes have doled out a whopping $114 million to political campaigns -- more than any other interest group in America's most populous state. Most of that cash greased the wheels of a successful ballot initiative to expand reservation gaming; but even if one subtracts the money spent on the initiative, Indian campaign contributions still lodge them firmly in the upper strata of California donors. That's an astonishing change from just 10 years ago, when Indian campaign donations amounted to virtually nothing.

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Nationwide, tribes raked in $8.25 billion from gambling operations last year, and a growing portion of that wealth is wending its way into campaign coffers. So far in the 1999-2000 election cycle, tribes have handed out more than $1 million to both Democrats and Republicans, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. The total is predicted to reach $4 million by year's end, dwarfing the $1.5 million donated during the 1996 cycle.

Outside California, tribes with successful casinos are also priming state-level politicians' pumps with cash. Florida's Seminole tribe showered $215,000 into Democratic coffers this cycle, while Republicans reaped $100,000 from the Mississippi Band of Choctaws.

Meantime, Indian lobbyists are busy plying their trade on Capitol Hill. Ten years ago, hardly any tribes hired lobbyists to work Congress on their behalf; now, at least 14 do. Topping the heap, the well-heeled Mississippi Choctaws have paid $7 million since 1995 to Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds LLP, a tony lobbying and law firm.

The future seems clear: The best political weapon for Native Americans -- who comprise only one percent of the electorate -- will be the checkbook.

"Corporations like Pacific Bell and Microsoft have been doing this for years," says Larry DeSoto, vice chairman of the Tooley River tribe in California. "They have taught us the lesson that money talks."

And Native giving is primed to grow even further, thanks to a recent ruling by the Federal Election Commission. As of last May, tribes are now exempted from the $25,000 annual maximum imposed on total direct contributions to individual candidates. The upshot: Tribes could conceivably pour hundreds of millions of dollars into candidates, parties, and political-action committees.

What do tribes want to get with their newfound political juice? So far, most Indian spending aims to protect gambling privileges -- the very thing that ensures them a seat at the table. "There's very little political giving from Indian tribes where gambling is not an issue," says Larry Makinson, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

Sovereignty is another crucial issue in what the federal government calls "Indian Country." Threats to tribal sovereignty appear in a dizzying plethora of forms, from imposing new taxes to stripping the authority of tribal courts. Indian leaders describe a near-paranoid attitude of "vigilance" against what sounds like the stuff of a sleepy civics lesson. But without this right to self-governance, they argue, future musings on Indians in politics will become purely academic.

Tribes are also keeping an eye on their financial support from the federal government. This year, President Clinton has asked Congress for a $1.2 billion increase in appropriations for Indian County -- the largest in a quarter century.

Meantime, some $10 billion of Indian money remains tangled in federal trust funds. Alleged mismanagement of the funds -- accrued from the sale of timber, oil leases, and mineral rights -- has sparked a class action lawsuit led by a member of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana.

Tribal leaders view their improved political clout as a hard-won chapter in a tragic history. Some hope to burnish their public image from that of a beggar with a tin cup to a political player with a wad of bills to spend. Yet many warn against breaking out the bubbly too soon.

"There's a popular perception that all Indians are out getting rich," says Wayne Shammel, spokesperson for the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua -- a tiny Oregon tribe with a massive casino-resort that has pumped $32,000 into federal Democratic bank accounts this cycle. "But only a few tribes are doing spectacularly well."

Indeed, fewer than half of the nation's 557 federally recognized tribes boast gaming operations. And only a handful -- like the Connecticut Pequots -- earn serious loot.

For the rest, life on the rez remains grim. Most Indians are still stuck on the bottom rungs of the economic and social ladder. Tribal unemployment runs at a dizzying 46 percent, and the 31 percent poverty rate is the highest in the nation. Some 40 percent of reservation housing is sub-standard, compared to a national rate of 6 percent. And a woefully inadequate education system casts a long shadow on the future. "People talk about the plight of the inner cities, but it's just as bad on many reservations," says Richard M. Milanovich, chairman of the tribal council of California's Agua Caliente band.

Since winning the franchise in 1924, Indians have historically tended to vote for Democrats, who have typically absorbed tribal concerns into their broader social agenda. But tribal leaders remember President Richard Nixon fondly for his Indian programs. And lately, a host of Republicans have cozied up to tribes.

The high regard among tribes that Clinton's largesse has earned is one legacy that presidential aspirant Al Gore seems suddenly eager to inherit. The vice president reportedly raised pledges for $400,000 after meeting with Native American leaders in Palm Springs last June. The event marked a sharp change from April, when neither Gore nor his opponent, Texas governor George W. Bush, bothered to attend a tribal leaders summit in New Mexico. Only gadfly Ralph Nader -- the Green Party's presidential nominee whose running mate is a Native American activist -- joined the dance.

Judging by the balance sheets, the Democrats shouldn't take Indian votes for granted. Mimicking the strategy of major corporate donors, some tribes are playing both sides of the fence. The Pequots, for example, have given $15,200 to Democratic and $28,000 to Republican causes this cycle. As proprietors of the gargantuan Connecticut casino Foxwoods, the Pequots aren't just acting like big business -- they are big business.

Republican Senator John McCain has earned plaudits as a staunch defender of Indian rights. Beyond the Navajos in his home state of Arizona, tribes and advocates nationwide respect McCain for his fluency in the oft-misunderstood notion of tribal sovereignty. McCain racked up considerable cash from Indian Country before dropping out of the presidential race.

Bush has evoked the opposite reaction. When Dubya campaigned through upstate New York, he propounded the incorrect notion that "state law reigns supreme when it comes to the Indians, whether it be gambling or any other issue." Since then, many tribes have dismissed Bush as lacking a serious grasp of Indian affairs.

"Bush really bungled the states' rights issue," says Mark Emery, spokesman for the Oneida Nation, which operates upstate New York's Turning Stone casino. "We told him and his aides to do their homework."

Bush is not alone. New York Rep. Rick Lazio, the Republicans' man in their battle against Hillary Clinton, put his loafers in his mouth this spring when he declared: "Native Americans were given many parts of our country, some (of it) very difficult land, with very few opportunities." His well-meaning comment was intended to show his support for upstate New York casinos. Instead, it was taken as a patronizing insult.

Bush and Lazio have second chances to rebound from their gaffes. But it's probably too late for Republican Sen. Slade Gorton. Since his days as Washington state's attorney general, Gorton has invoked tribal wrath for aggressive policies regarding Indians' land and fishing rights -- even their fundamental right to self-governance.

"The man is incredibly dangerous," says Shammel. "He promotes anti-Indian legislation every session, and every year it gets craftier."

Gorton's past may come back to haunt him. Led by the Jamestown S'Kallam Tribe, Indians are launching a $1 million advertising assault to unseat the veteran legislator in November.

Yet despite their newfound political clout, Native Americans have barely begun to fight. So far, Indian political efforts remain for the most part narrowly focused and defensive, particularly as gambling riches have thrust tribes into the limelight. "We spend most of our energy in Washington trying to put out fires," says Milanovich.

And Indians still trail behind other minority groups in terms of political representation. There is only one Native American in Congress -- Colorado's Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

"When some Indians crack the inner circle of policymakers in the White House," says Harper, "then we'll really have something to talk about."