By Jack Chang
jchang@sacbee.com
Published: Sunday, Aug. 8, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 1A

This year, the long road to the governor’s office runs through the high desert reservation of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians.

It also stops at the reservations – and casinos – of the Sycuan and Viejas bands of the Kumeyaay Nation east of San Diego.

In fact, the campaign trail crosses many of the state’s Indian reservations, especially those with lucrative gambling compacts. That’s where Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman – along with candidates for other offices – are seeking the support and potentially hefty donations of tribal leaders.

At stake is the financial backing of a state gambling industry that generates an estimated $7.2 billion a year in revenue. Also at play are the state-negotiated gambling compacts of 47 tribes that expire in 10 years and a proposal to open Indian casinos far away from reservations.

“I’ve met with (Brown and Whitman) a couple of times, and they’re both great people,” said Daniel Tucker, chairman of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, which represents 28 tribes. “We haven’t made up our mind. We’re still looking. We’re still thinking.”

Whoever wins that support will receive hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars in contributions. Brown needs the help more than Whitman, whose net worth exceeds $1 billion and who has invested $91 million of her own money in her campaign so far.

At least one of the tribes, the Viejas band, has shown it’s prepared to pour game-changing amounts of money into races. It spent $2 million in 2003 supporting the failed gubernatorial campaign of then-Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.

Tucker said his group had not decided whether to throw that kind of support behind any candidate this year.

One tribe-funded group, Californians for Fiscally Responsible Leadership, spent $47,000 this year running radio ads supporting Jeff Denham, who won the Republican nomination for the 19th Congressional District, centered in Modesto, and attacking his opponent, Jim Patterson.

The tribes “are major players,” said Cheryl Schmidt, director of nonprofit gambling watchdog group Stand Up for California. “They’re right up there with teachers and prison guards and doctors and nurses. They have the financial engine of the casino that allows them to influence politicians.”

So far, Brown is pulling ahead in the tribal money race, receiving more than $715,000 from tribes and other gambling interests compared with the $140,000-plus received by Whitman.

As governor from 1975 to 1983, Brown was a frequent supporter of tribal interests, including creating the state Native American Heritage Preservation Commission.

As the state’s current attorney general, Brown sided with the tribes last year when he opposed new regulations on their casinos. That decision ran counter to the recommendation of the state’s Gambling Control Commission.

“On the whole, Jerry Brown as attorney general has been supportive of tribal positions,” said David Quintana, political director of the California Tribal Business Alliance, which represents four tribes. “That’s because he’s had a very, very long history of working with tribes … not as casinos, but as governments, and he understands it.”

Jacob Appelsmith, chief of the attorney general’s Bureau of Gambling Control, said Brown displayed his ability to work with both tribes and state regulators this year when he helped the two sides meet halfway on state regulation of casinos despite the tribes’ initial opposition. The compromise, for example, allowed the tribes to voluntarily turn over internal audits rather than making it mandatory.

Appelsmith said Brown has also taken positions counter to those of the tribes.

“His lawyers in the attorney general’s office are defending the governor’s office against these tribes in all of these important cases involving gaming compacts,” Appelsmith said. “That’s against what the tribes wanted in these cases.”

Whoever wins the governorship in November will decide several major tribal issues, including renegotiating gambling compacts with 47 tribes that expire in 2020 and deciding whether to allow tribes to build casinos outside of their reservations and run online gambling.

The Morongo tribe, along with two card rooms, is seeking exclusive permission to offer online poker.

“The tribal council of Morongo has met with both gubernatorial candidates, and they listened very carefully and they’re going to be watching this race with great interest,” said Morongo spokesman Patrick Dorinson. “Both candidates addressed issues facing all California tribes.”

When asked about off-reservation gambling, Whitman said, “My view is that the compacts have been struck, the way we handle gaming in California is on reservation and there might be an exception or two, but my view is the gaming needs to stay on reservation.”

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