If the Viejas and Cuyapaipe tribes hadn't been feuding over a possible casino near San Diego, dozens of House members might be boasting to their constituents about new, federally funded park projects.
Since 1991, the Viejas band of Kumeyaay Indians has operated a lucrative casino in Alpine, Calif. Now the Cuyapaipe tribe, which consists of seven adults and one child, hopes to start a casino nearby, on land that houses an Indian health center.
The Viejas say the Cuyapaipe, also known as the Ewiiaapyaap, have no right to start a casino because the federal government donated the land in question in 1986 to seven local tribes -- including the Viejas -- although it was put in the Cuyapaipe's name. The Cuyapaipe contend that the Viejas simply don't want competition for gamblers' dollars.
The bitter dispute brought down a major resources bill last week, when language that would have blocked the Cuyapaipe from starting a casino for three years prompted two House members to object. With neither side willing to back down, the House leadership decided to pull the measure until after the Nov. 5 election.
The park bill debacle is the latest example of the political potency of gambling on Indian lands, as tribes and their investors hire lobbyists and court patrons to press their case in Congress. The Viejas spent $120,000 on lobbying this year and gave $66,000 in campaign contributions. The Cuyapaipe have spent $71,000 on lobbying, and their financial backer, Luna Entertainment, spends $14,000 a month to lobby on the issue
House Resources Committee spokeswoman Marnie Funk noted that 87 lawmakers' projects evaporated when the bill was yanked. The bill would have authorized more than $3 billion to establish historic sites, preserve dinosaur footprints and create an endangered desert tortoise reserve, among other programs."It's a shame, because there were so many projects for both Republicans and Democrats that we had put together in this omnibus bill," Funk said. "The reality, of course, is gambling is high stakes, with lots of money involved. When you have a lot of money involved, members get concerned."
Tribal casinos began flourishing in the 1990s, as Native Americans used their status as sovereign nations to establish gambling operations on their reservations that were prohibited elsewhere by state law. There are 201 tribal gambling operations in the nation -- nearly 50 of them in California -- collecting $12 billion gross a year, according to the National Indian Gaming Association.
Tribes stretching from Connecticut to Mississippi across to California have poured millions of dollars into Democratic and GOP coffers and into lobbying firms to ensure that federal legislation and regulations promote their interests.The Viejas Indians, with 250 members, are a case in point. They started in 1991 what tribe spokeswoman Nikki Symington calls a "multimillion-dollar" casino, a venture so lucrative the tribe invested some of the proceeds in an outlet mall and local bank. Now they are the envy of the neighbors, Symington said, because the project "proved prosperous."
The Viejas gave $25,000 this election cycle to House Republicans, and $10,000 each to the Democrats' House and Senate campaign committees. They have hired prominent GOP and Democratic lobbyists: former representative Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), their political director; Williams Mullen Strategies, which includes John Guzik, former deputy executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee; and Oldaker, Biden & Belair, whose lobbyists have close ties to Senate Democrats.
The tiny Cuyapaipe tribe, meanwhile, has lost members for years. Young men and women have left the tribal rolls, moving away from the 4,100-acre reservation near Mount Laguna, Calif., to pursue better economic opportunities.
"The reservation's pretty remote," said Michael Garcia, the tribe's vice chairman. "People didn't see any resources, or any future."
Now, gambling has given the tribe a new chance. In 2000, the Cuyapaipe struck a deal with the state of California that would allow them to build a casino where a rural health center now serves seven tribes. The site is much closer to San Diego than the tribe's reservation, making it a better tourist attraction.
The Cuyapaipe have promised to devote a portion of their proceeds to constructing and maintaining a health center, a donation they say could total $100 million after 30 years. They have an influential financial backer, Thomas Celani, a partner in Detroit's Motor City Casino and an Indian casino in northern Michigan. He says he's willing to spend $50 million to $60 million on the operation.
But Congress can block the tribe's plans.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who received nearly $6,000 in campaign donations from the Viejas this year, has consistently tried to stop the Cuyapaipe's casino. Last week, he added language to the omnibus parks bill that would have prevented the Cuyapaipe from constructing their gambling hall until 2005, unless they could get the six other tribes involved in the health center to approve it.
Hunter spokesman Mike Harrison said the lawmaker was trying to protect the land as it was intended. "All seven tribes got into this situation,'' he said, so "at least all seven tribes should agree on what happens."
That move, which Garcia referred to as "a nasty little bit of legislation," prompted Michigan Reps. Dale Kildee (D) and Joe Knollenberg (R) to object. Celani, the Cuyapaipe's major investor, is friendly to both lawmakers, and has contributed to Knollenberg's campaigns.
Knollenberg spokesman Chris Close said Celani has spoken with the congressman about the issue, but "Knollenberg doesn't do everything every contributor wants. . . . You have this situation where there's one tribe who's being singled out."
With Knollenberg and Kildee protesting, the House GOP leadership postponed the bill. But both sides are gearing up for a possible vote during the lame-duck session Congress plans for November.
Last week the Cuyapaipe brought on two former Clinton staffers, Christopher Lehane and Mark Fabiani, to promote their story in the news media. They also have a former Kildee aide and two other lobbying firms on retainer.
Celani, who will bankroll the tribe's casino, has hired a former Knollenberg aide as well as Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton's former law firm. Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs may rule soon on whether the Cuyapaipe can move the health center and establish a casino.
"The other side has more lobbyists than members," complained Guzik, the Viejas's chief lobbyist.
But Garcia said the Cuyapaipe tribe doesn't have to work hard to promote its interests on Capitol Hill: "I don't think the lobbying effort is so difficult when we have such a wonderful story to tell."