10:08 PM PDT on Monday, September 20, 2010

By JIM MILLER
The Press-Enterprise

SACRAMENTO – The last time California changed governors, the final weeks of campaigning were marked by TV ads demanding that tribes with casinos pay “their fair share” to the state.

But as Republican Meg Whitman and Democrat Jerry Brown fight to succeed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, their campaigns have offered nothing but warm words for tribes and the state’s politically influential multibillion-dollar tribal gaming industry.

Tribes have noticed. Many from the Inland area and around California have given to both candidates, although Brown has received more support by far, records show.

Significantly, there has been no sign that tribal spending will be anywhere near that of past campaigns, such as the tens of millions of dollars consumed during a 2008 fight over casino deals. Major California tribes, meanwhile, also have targeted dollars at candidates for Congress, which is considering legislation to authorize Internet poker.

Whoever wins the governor’s race, tribal leaders say, is virtually certain to be an improvement over Schwarzenegger, whose rocky relationship with tribes dates to the 2003 recall fight.

“We hope this time around, the governor understands more what tribes are about,” said Daniel Tucker, the chairman of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association.

Officials give high marks to both candidates.

“The tribes have a longer history with Brown. He knows more about tribes, their cultures, their governments than the Legislature combined,” said David Quintana, of the California Tribal Business Alliance, a tribal group.

“But I have to applaud Meg Whitman because she has done an incredible amount of outreach,” Quintana said. “She’s visited every tribe. They really respect what she has done.”

Successful casinos have helped make tribes major players in the political process. From 2000 through 2009, six of the top 25 political spenders in the state were gaming tribes, and four out of the six are in Riverside or San Bernardino counties.

Much of that spending centered on winning voter approval for ballot measures to authorize or expand tribal gaming, or to elect lawmakers who would support the same.

Today, 58 tribes operate casinos in California and 67 have gaming compacts with the state. Tribes have achieved significant statehouse success on everything from protecting Native American sacred sites to restricting charity bingo games.

Changes ahead

Tribes, though, still have a significant stake in who becomes the next governor, experts say.

“Indian gaming, it’s continuing evolving,” said Alan P. Meister, an Irvine-based economist with Nathan Associates Inc. who has studied the industry. “I expect controversies and relevant issues to continue to come up.”

Many tribes face the 2020 expiration of the 1999 agreements that authorized Las Vegas-style gambling on tribal land.

Some tribes have renegotiated the deals and extended their terms. But about four dozen in the state still have the original compacts and will likely look to open talks with the next governor.

Michael Lombardi, a member of the Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians near Coachella, said the tribe plans to ask the next governor to extend the tribe’s compact another 10 years.

TRIBAL RELATIONS

Brown has a friendly history with tribes, dating to long before tribes operated successful casinos.

In 1976, he signed the legislation that created the state’s Native American Heritage Commission. It was among the earliest steps to preserve American Indian history, such as protecting burial sites.

More recently, in 2008, the attorney general’s office sided with tribes against casino security standards proposed by state gambling regulators.

Through last Thursday, Brown’s campaign had received more than $625,000 from tribes or their members.

“The fact is that he’s lived in California his whole life. He has built relationships around the state,” Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford said.

Whitman is much less of a known quantity with tribes. She has had to introduce herself to tribal leaders, with the help of emissaries such as former Inland Assemblyman Russ Bogh.

Through Thursday, Whitman had collected about $190,000 from tribes or their members.

Darrel Ng, a Whitman spokesman, said Whitman respects tribes’ sovereignty and will have an open mind on any proposal.

“She understands an important part of being governor is having good inter-governmental relationships with tribes,” Ng said.

Feud with GOVERNOR

Tribes had prickly relations with former Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat. But they quickly soured on Schwarzenegger, during the campaign to oust Davis.

Schwarzenegger ran ads criticizing tribes’ contributions to his opponents and demanding that they share more revenue with the state. The tribes answered with millions of dollars worth of ads accusing Schwarzenegger of “untruthful attacks.”

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