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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Tribal Leaders Hail Setback For California Proposition

8 October 2004

LAS VEGAS -- Tribal leaders attending a conference in Las Vegas on Thursday applauded the likely defeat of a voter initiative in California that threatened to remove their monopoly on slot machines but said they already are bracing for future political battles nationwide.

Backers of Proposition 68 dropped their campaign Wednesday to allow California's race tracks and card rooms to offer slots but said they will continue to pursue a lawsuit filed last month to block Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger from signing new casino deals with tribes.

One tribal leader said television ads for Proposition 68 were "slickly produced" but weren't able to win over voters.

"You can't buy an election," said Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians, a tribe south of Los Angeles.

Since the late 1990s, only about 30 percent to 35 percent of Californians tend to oppose tribes and gambling and any combination of the two, Macarro said.

Macarro's comments came during the final day of the casino industry's leading trade show, the Global Gaming Expo.

The Pechanga tribe has been an outspoken advocate for tribal sovereignty and hasn't participated in recent compact negotiations with Schwarzenegger. A few tribes have recently renegotiated casino deals with the governor to offer for more slot machines in exchange for handing over a cut of slot revenue to the state and other concessions.

Macarro said the idea that tribes should pay their "fair share" into the state budget is wrong and doesn't take into account the human suffering of their ancestors.

He also said California's negotiated tax rate on slots is arbitrary and warned tribes that other states may force them to pay a similar rate for their slot machines.

"There's no science behind it other than two tribes in New England did it that way," he said. "We can't allow this to be the standard for governments to strongarm tribes."

Tribal leaders said they are becoming more effective political lobbyists but said their efforts are still misunderstood by the general public.

Lobbying is about survival and protecting what little culture is left of their tribes, Macarro said.

"This is not about wielding influence as an end in itself," he said.

Leaders also said they expect the biggest voter turnout among American Indians in history this November with a goal of one million votes.

Tribes have tended to support more Democrats than Republicans, though some Republicans have taken up tribal issues.

Former Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore won New Mexico by only 376 votes in 2000 in a state with a 10 percent Indian population, said Stuart Paisano, governor of the Sandia Pueblo tribe near Albuquerque.

Paisano said the tribe is trying to get out the vote and has hosted elected officials on its reservation, he said.

The tribe's casino compact is valid until 2015 but potential competition from other forms of gambling has led the Sandia to diversify into other businesses such as office complexes and industrial industries, he said.

Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said tribal sovereignty "continues to be under attack."

Tribes need to better prepare for future political battles by monitoring legislation and creating a unified front, Hall said.

"Unity is a word that is common but is hard to accomplish," he said.

While lobbying and voting is critical for tribes, their ultimate success will depend on the perceptions of their non-Indian neighbors, said Anthony Pico, chairman of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians near San Diego.

"The voting public will decide the fate of Native Americans," Pico said. "The ability to move forward will be decided in the court of public opinion."