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Betting on the Recall

The Indian tribes haven't decided if they're going to stay, hit, or double down on the recall. But once they put their big stack on the table, it could change the picture.

12:00 AM, Aug 19, 2003 • By HUGH HEWITT
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HOW MUCH would you spend to protect and expand a business with $5 billion in annual revenues and no significant local competition? Is that protection worth 2 percent of one year's income? Or 5 percent? Maybe even 10 percent? Whether California's Indian tribes spend $100 million, $250 million, or even $500 million in the next 50 days is the biggest question in California's recall.

Sixty-one tribes already have deals with California on the specifics of their gambling operations. More such deals are on the way. On July 25, the California Nations Indian Gaming Association announced in a press release that "California tribal leaders are outraged at Gov. Gray Davis' refusal to sign tribal-state gaming compacts for tribal governments that are identical to compacts approved in 1999 and early 2000 by the governor and state legislators." The press release went on to explain that the Yorul Tribe of Eureka and the Torres-Martinez Band of Cahuilla Indians of Thermal deserved the same deal as other tribes.

Word got through to Gray Davis. On August 13, the CNIGA announced that it was "pleased that the Governor is negotiating Tribal-State compacts with tribal governments." On August 16, the internet edition of Gambling Magazine reported that the Davis administration had reached agreement with the Torres-Martinez Band that covers 350 slot machines at a Highway 86 truck stop in Imperial County and 1,650 slot machines near I-10 in Riverside County.

Funny how the governor's team got moving on the tribal casinos as the recall qualified and headed toward the ballot. Such is the power of gambling in the Golden State.

This past Sunday the Los Angeles Times reported that the tribes had adopted a "wait-and-see recall stance." Not very likely, given the stakes involved. Unless a federal judge blocks the vote, Cruz Bustamante is the Democrats' last, best hope for hanging on to the statehouse. To call Cruz an empty suit is unfair to the suit, but he's the only game in town, and the tribes are expected to back him heavily.

"We're hoping for strong support," Bustamante strategist Richie Ross told the Times. "But there really has been no quantification of that. The tribes will be involved. I don't know to what extent."

It's the form of the tribes' support that has recall watchers guessing. There is only so much you can do for Bustamante, a political force so slight that Gray Davis seems imbued with gravitas by comparison. Bustamante has to rely on a potent labor political machine to turn out voters eager to keep the outlandish public employee contracts of recent years untouched and worker comp laws unreformed.

The tribes can play a much deeper game than just supporting Bustamante either directly or with independent expenditures (which have no legislated limit). Sacramento Bee columnist and blogger Dan Weintraub was the first to report that word is floating around Sacramento of a tribe-backed campaign on behalf of conservative Republican state senator Tom McClintock that would be meant to drain votes from Schwarzenegger.

California Democratic party chair Art Torres preceded me on a TV show this past Sunday and I watched as Art praised Tom McClintock's genuine conservative credentials. Torres's sudden affection for Tom's principles amuses many California pundits, but allied with the tens of millions of campaign dollars the Indians have at their disposal, it could mean trouble for Arnold.

Orange County is the biggest treasure trove of conservative votes in the state. The County's four most influential elected officials--Congressmen Chris Cox and Dana Rohrabacher, state senator Ross Johnson and state assemblyman John Campbell--have all endorsed Arnold. My California radio audience, spread across markets from San Diego to San Francisco and Sacramento, is also decidedly both conservative and pro-Arnold. (So am I.)

The tribes could try and obscure conservative leadership support for Arnold, however, and could help prop up McClintock's by playing on long-standing grievances between various GOP factions out west.

It would be a risky play. Do the tribes want to antagonize Schwarzenegger and call attention to their own massive mountain of money? If they go beyond traditional politics, would Arnold be tempted to open negotiations with Las Vegas interests about bringing competition to the world of California gaming? In short, do the tribes want to throw good money after bad (they have given Bustamante considerable direct donations in years past) just as the politics of California are changing?

Hugh Hewitt is the host of The Hugh Hewitt Show, a nationally syndicated radio talkshow, and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard. His new book, In, But Not Of, has just been published by Thomas Nelson.