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Stereotype of the Month Entry
(9/25/03)


Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

Thursday, September 25, 2003 -- Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Guest columnist
Democrats roll the dice with their tribal buddies

By Collin Levey
Special to The Times

When it comes to campaign-finance reform, California Democrats are finding their moccasins in unfriendly territory. On Monday, state Judge Loren McMaster ordered Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante to return the unspent portion of some $3 million in campaign contributions he has received illegally from the Indian gaming cartels and unions.

Oh gosh, the unspent portion, his campaign maintains, is exactly zero.

Money being fungible, this claim is more than a bit dubious. The more telling point, though, is what it says about a Democratic Party that has spent the past five years demanding that the role of money in political life be eliminated, even as it authored many of the scandals that have given political donations a bad name.

Bustamante's dirty money was channeled through a loophole. California recently changed its election laws, but the Legislature also decided that campaign committees left over from previous elections wouldn't be restricted by the law. The money that flowed into Bustamante's current gubernatorial campaign was collected by a committee set up to finance his last election campaign.

Dodging the money regulations their own party has fought for has become an art form with the Democrats, one that the party has not exhibited much guilt over. Bustamante stretched the campaign laws to seek tribal donations. But, well, he was just trying to "level the playing field" with rich Republican corporate and fat-cat donors.

Democrats are already known for their dependence on oodles of "soft money." In the last election cycle, tribes gave around $7 million to federal candidates. Of this amount, some 80 percent came from 30 tribes, all of which happen to be in the casino business. In California, according to Common Cause, casinos have outstripped traditional powerhouse donors like the teachers' unions to become the biggest contributors in the state.

Of course, this is not exactly the image the tribes want to portray to the public. After the Bustamante ruling, Native American political operatives worried that voters might begin to think of the tribes as rich and powerful and no longer deserving of "victim" status. That "victim" perception is what helped them win a monopoly on casino gaming in California in the first place.

Already, the tribes' big-money politicking has made them a butt of humor on late-night TV and even an episode of "South Park." Last week, the Los Angeles Times quoted Paula Lorenzo, someone it described as the chairwoman of the "Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians," as fretting that "tribes will be perceived as the rich kids on the block, out there throwing dollars."

Yet, you would never know from visiting the National Congress of American Indians Web site that the main political interest of many of its members is the promotion of casino gambling. First, you have to click past an obscure section titled "community development," then wade past more links labeled "environmental protection," "anti-defamation and mascots" and "self determination and self governance," before finding any mention of gaming.

Once there, you are vouchsafed this assurance that everything is still bad and Native Americans still merit being treated as a victim class. "A small number of Indian tribes have found economic success through gaming," the Indian congress reports, "but gaming has done little to change the crippling economic conditions found on most reservations."

That's undoubtedly true, but the question is why. At the very least, shouldn't more of the casino proceeds be flowing back to reinvest in jobs and services for Native Americans instead of spending millions on lobbying and campaign donations?

The Indian reservations enjoy their status as "sovereign nations," avoiding many of the local, state and federal taxes and laws that govern ordinary citizens. Yet, they insist on the same political rights as other Americans, and then some. For instance, under the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, tribes are exempt from the limits imposed on other campaign contributions. In California, the spectacle of Democratic politicians trading with the casinos that speckle the state is particularly egregious.

Gov. Gray Davis profited big-time from gaming interests in previous elections, but this time he's getting a cold shoulder from the tribes. Why? He suggested publicly the tribal leaders should send back $680 million to the state as a "thank you" for letting them run all those casinos and slot machines. That's a big part of why Bustamante, whose brother manages a casino, has become the primary beneficiary of Indian money in the recall battle.

California deserves its reputation as a bellwether state. It's now leading the nation in discovering the Frankenstein's monster that many states have created when handing gaming licenses to Indian tribes. It may be too late to undo this unhealthy bit of commercial favoritism, but let's hope the Bustamante ruling is evidence that the new tribal elite will be expected to play by the same rules as the rest of us.

Collin Levey, a former editorial writer and editor for the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, is based in Seattle and writes regularly for editorial pages of The Seattle Times. E-mail her at clevey@seattletimes.com

Copyright 2003 The Seattle Times Company

Rob's comment
California's Indians didn't wear moccasins, I think.

Federally recognized tribes are sovereign nations, not "sovereign nations."

Levey asks why reservations are poor, and suggests the answer is because they're spending their money on "lobbying and campaign donations" instead of social services. How ignorant can you get?

One, most of those donations have come from the tribes that can afford them. They've already taken care of their people, presumably. They're lobbying to ensure they and their fellow tribes can continue doing so.

If Levey thinks California's rich tribes should take care of the poor tribes, they're doing that too, through the state's revenue sharing fund. But Congress didn't mandate that rich tribes help poor tribes anymore than it mandates that rich states like California help poor states like Mississippi.

Two, most of the tribal expenditures have gone to secure the right to gaming, which has generated the funds to help Indians out of poverty. See Have Gaming Tribes Bought California for $120 Million?  No for details.

So Levey has the facts backwards. Indians are doing what she wants them to do: lobbying for the means to help correct "the crippling economic conditions found on most reservations." Gaming is the solution to the problem, not the problem.

Finally, tribes will never play by precisely the same rules as the rest of us because they're not the rest of us. They're sovereign nations within a nation, a special status enshrined in the Constitution. If Levey doesn't like that, she can try to amend the Constitution. Or she can go back where her ancestors came from.

Related links
The facts about tribal sovereignty
The facts about Indian gaming
Greedy Indians


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