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Bustamante or Bust?

A California court deals the lieutenant governor a blow as his Indian gambling connections threaten to swamp his campaign.

7:55 AM, Sep 23, 2003 • By BILL WHALEN
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TO KNOW SACRAMENTO is to appreciate the chip on its shoulder. Nearly a decade ago, I moved to California's capital to write speeches for former Governor Pete Wilson. The best my colleagues could say about the place was that it's a quick drive to Lake Tahoe and wine country and a quick flight to Los Angeles or Las Vegas.

Yesterday, Sacramento's second-class status was on display again. With the nation fixated on San Francisco and the 9th Circuit's hearing on the recall delay, a Sacramento superior court dropped its own bombshell. Judge Loren McMaster blocked Cruz Bustamante from using millions in donations from California's gambling tribes to finance television ads against Proposition 54, which would ban the state from collecting racial data. If the ruling stands, it's a serious blow to both the No on 54 effort and the star of those ads, Cruz Bustamante. And it could adversely affect Gray Davis. The lower the turnout against Prop. 54, presumably the fewer the votes there'll be against the recall.

Here's why the court came down hard on Bustamante: The lieutenant governor was playing fast and loose with state campaign finance laws. He had accepted nearly $4 million from the gambling tribes, but had parked the money in a campaign committee established before California's Proposition 34 went into effect after last November's election. That allowed Bustamante to circumvent recall's $21,200 individual donor limit. When the press figured this out and his poll numbers began to slide, the lieutenant governor changed tactics. Instead of spending the tribes' money on his recall campaign, Bustamante created two new accounts and said he'd commit the tribes' money to Prop. 54's defeat. Since last Wednesday, a 30-second spot featuring the lieutenant governor railing against the ballot measure has saturated California's airwaves.

This would have continued for the remaining two weeks of recall (assuming the 9th Circuit overturns the postponement) were it not for Republican state senator Ross Johnson. The Orange County lawmaker not only took Bustamante to court, but also convinced the judge that the state's Fair Political Practices Commission had erred in giving recall candidates the donor loophole. In the other half of the one-two punch, the court ruled that Bustamante has to return the balance of the tribes' donations.

With this latest ruling, recall takes on the feel of a Hollywood western, with the tribes playing the bad guys. Bustamante accepted $4 million in gambling revenues and got burned. Now, it's state senator Tom McClintock's turn to feel the heat. Last Friday, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians (they own a big casino near Palm Springs) began airing 30-second TV ads across Los Angeles touting McClintock's candidacy (the tribe bought about $300,000 worth of airtime, the Los Angeles Times reports). In all, tribes have donated $580,000 to McClintock's campaign.

Why are the gambling tribes suddenly in love with the conservative Republican? Sure, McClintock supports tribal sovereignty. But he's also an impediment to Arnold Schwarzenegger, the only major recall player to call the tribes "special interests." Arnold's in an anti-Sacramento, ethical mood these days (he's doing a town hall meeting there tonight) and he's hammered McClintock for taking tribe money. McClintock says Arnold's a hypocrite for saying he wouldn't take money from special interests, but taking outside contributions nonetheless. Look for fireworks when this comes up at Wednesday night's debate in Sacramento.

AND LOOK FOR California politicians to take a second look at Indian gambling once the recall dust settles.

California has 107 federally recognized tribes, 54 of whom operate casinos--less than 20 have casinos with the maximum 2,000 slot machines permitted by state law. The tribes pay about $130 million annually to the state. However, that money doesn't go for state programs in general. Instead, it's directed to non-gambling tribes and to pay for gambling side effects like traffic congestion.

This year, seven gambling tribes have donated nearly $8 million to state and local campaigns. As of last week, that was double what all labor unions had spent on the recall. Bustamante has been the tribes' favorite charity, receiving more than $5 million. Two Southern California tribes alone--the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians and the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians--have given $4.5 million to the lieutenant governor.

At times, their support is subtle. Last weekend, for example, Bustamante held a rally in El Centro--that's out in the desert, south of the Salton Sea and near the Mexico border. At that rally, Bustamante supporters held banners reading: "No a la destitución, sí a Cruz Bustamante para gobernador." The Viejas tribe paid for those banners.