Odd Alliance Fights Tribal Casinos
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, September 21, 1998; Page A04
SANTA BARBARA, Calif.Strange alliances, fierce rhetoric and slick television commercials mark a battle to preserve gambling on Indian reservations in California that is rapidly becoming one of the most expensive initiative campaigns in the nation's history.
The measure, Proposition 5, is officially titled the Tribal Government Gaming and Self-Sufficiency Act of 1998 and popularly called the "Indian gaming initiative." It pits 37 Native American tribes in California that run casinos against a coalition, bankrolled and led by Nevada casinos, that includes church groups, labor unions and Gov. Pete Wilson (R).
Opponents say the measure on the Nov. 3 ballot would lead to proliferation of California gambling a claim advanced in a gaudy commercial in which casinos sprout on every corner, culminating in a towering neon sign that proclaims, "Casino California." Mike Sloan, general counsel of Circus Circus in Las Vegas and point man for the Nevada casinos, said in an interview that Proposition 5 is a wedge for "wholesale expansion of unregulated commercial gambling" in California.
Steve Glazer, a consultant for the Proposition 5 campaign, calls this claim a "bankrupt scare tactic." Tribal leaders such as Anthony Pico, chairman of the Viejas Band of the Kumeyaay Indians in San Diego County, say there would be little expansion of gambling in California and say opponents are trying to "complete the genocide" of Native Americans in California.
The troubled history of relations between white settlers and Native Americans is particularly gruesome in California. As social historian Carey McWilliams observed in his 1949 book, "California: the Great Exception," "California 'solved' its Indian problem by liquidating the Indians."
The Native American population in California was 100,000 at the time of the 1849 gold rush. In less than two decades it was reduced to 15,000 through disease, massacres and removal of Indians from tribal lands. California's tribes had inhabited 75 million acres and were promised 8 million acres by the settlers; they received 624,000 acres, much of it in remote mountain or desert locations.
Today, of 33 million Californians an estimated 250,000 call themselves Indians or Native Americans and fewer than 50,000 are on tribal lands. Most of the state's 107 tribes are too poor or geographically remote to have casinos.
But some tribes contend that casinos have made them self-sufficient. Indian casinos in California last year generated $1.4 billion in income and $632 million in profit. Under federal law, the profit must be spent on housing, education, health care and tribal administration.
Proposition 5 requires that tribes with casinos share revenue with tribes that do not have them.
Typical of the tribes that claim to have improved their lot with casinos is the Chumash, a small tribe that once inhabited the Channel Islands off the Santa Barbara coast.
The Chumash have become one of the largest employers in the Santa Ynez valley, an area of vineyards and horse farms 30 miles northwest of here. The tribe has built a health clinic that provides low-cost care for poor residents, whether or not they are tribal members.
Indian gaming has been especially profitable in the San Diego and Palm Springs areas where casinos are near population centers. Critics say the casinos have increased local law enforcement costs; the tribes say they have created jobs and reduced dependence of tribal members on welfare.
Among the more successful tribes is the 270-member Viejas Band. After twice going bankrupt, the Viejas have built a profitable casino in Alpine, in eastern San Diego County, that features off-track wagering on horse races as well as casino games.
The Viejas have started a bank, built a state-of-the-art factory outlet center that tells tribal stories in a light-and-laser show and helped a poorer tribe on the Los Coyotes Reservation, which recently received electricity for the first time.
The spread of Indian gaming in California coincides with a mild Las Vegas slump caused by hotel overbuilding and increased road and air transportation problems. A Bear, Stearns Companies financial report said Nevada would initially lose about $300 million if Proposition 5 passes, with the heaviest losses in border casinos.
"The amenities of Las Vegas will prevail in the long run, but we're hurt in the short run," said Las Vegas political consultant Sig Rogich. He said that studies show that San Diego-area gamblers who used to make seven trips a year to Las Vegas now make five.
In the background of the opposition are such groups as the Washington-based Traditional Values Coalition, a fundamentalist Christian lobbying group. The Rev. Lou Sheldon, its chairman, says he objects to the assertion by California tribes that they are sovereign nations. "I hate Las Vegas but am thrilled that they're helping us," Sheldon said.
Opponents and supporters agree on two points.
One is that Proposition 5 is a boon to California television stations, on which the two sides are now spending an estimated $1 million a week in advertising. The California tribes raised $24 million for the Proposition 5 campaign and spent $9 million to qualify the initiative for the ballot. According to private estimates from the two sides, supporters are likely to spend $35 million and opponents at least $25 million most of it coming from the Nevada casinos.
The other point of agreement is that Proposition 5 would never have been on the ballot except for Wilson, who for years refused to sign a compact with the gaming tribes allowing them to continue with video poker and similar games. Instead, Wilson negotiated a highly restrictive compact with the Pala Indians, a non-gambling tribe, to use a new and untested machine and tightly limit the number of machines.
The Pala compact, which a handful of other tribes have since joined, won legislative support from Democrats because of labor opposition to the tribal casinos. The San Diego Union-Tribune editorialized that Wilson had ignored federal law by negotiating a treaty with one tribe and forcing it on others, saying it was comparable to "negotiating how many cartons of milk can be sold by a mom-and-pop grocery" and forcing this limitation on supermarkets.
Nevada casinos have traditionally prevailed whenever they oppose measures to extend gambling in California. But a recent survey by California pollster Richard Hertz for a group of newspapers found Proposition 5 favored by 53 percent of respondents, with the remainder divided between opponents and undecided voters.
Pico, tribal chairman of the Viejas Band, said Nevada casinos are "taking a lazy, un-American way out" in opposing Proposition 5. "They make billions of dollars, far more than us," Pico said. "Because they can't compete better, they're trying to put us out of business."
Over the course of the 1998 campaign, The Washington Post is examining the politics of ballot initiative campaigns the people behind them, the money that's spent, and the issues. Does this increasingly popular way of legislating represent democracy at its best, or is it a menace to representative government?
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