State Indian Tribes Cover Their Political Bets with Cash

By Phillip Matier, Andrew Ross, San Francisco Chronicle
January 8, 2003

When it comes to playing the right political odds, you’d be hard- pressed to beat the state’s casino-flush Indian tribes.

And they sure covered their bets at the inaugural festivities for the high and the mighty in Sacramento this week.

As usual, the biggest players were the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, which operate two big money-making casinos down south.

The Agua Calientes were one of eight $50,000 “platinum” sponsors of Gov. Gray Davis’ inaugural festivities, a contribution (along with their past donations) that earned them top billing in the program.

The tribe also gave $10,000 to Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante’s bash, and was an honored sponsor of Attorney General Bill Lockyer’s party as well.

The Cabazon Band of Mission Indians and the Viejas tribe each gave $25,000 – – the former to Davis’ party, and the latter to Bustamante’s.

The truth is, the state’s Indian tribes have emerged as some of California’s biggest political donors in recent years, handing out millions to Davis and other pols last year alone.

Keeping track of all those contributions hasn’t been easy.

In fact, the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission is suing the Agua Calientes, alleging they were late in disclosing more than $8 million in donations to candidates and causes in the last four years.

Lockyer — who has received hundreds of thousands in tribal donations over the years — declined to take the case, for reasons that have yet to be made public. As a result, the watchdog commission had to hire a private attorney to pursue the matter.

It’s probably no coincidence that the tribes are keeping the contribution spigot running just as the governor is gearing up to renegotiate the compacts that allow gaming on tribal lands in the first place.

Just days before Christmas, in fact, Davis put the first bargaining chip on the table when he said he might tax slot machines at the Indian casinos as a way to help offset the state’s projected $35 billion budget deficit.

Sacramento insiders, however, tell us the tribes already hold most of the cards in this game — and that short of a longshot lawsuit to force their hand,

the only real leverage Davis has is to give something even more valuable in return.

And what might that be?

More slot machines, of course.

TAKE THAT!: No inaugural season would be complete without its share of slaps and slights — and this week’s bashes down at San Francisco City Hall were no exception.

Topping the list: Mayor Willie Brown’s very public no-show at incoming Assessor Mabel Teng’s swearing-in ceremony in Chinatown.

Not only did the mayor not attend the former supervisor’s tea — he bluntly dressed her down when she called to invite him.

Seems the mayor is still steaming over Teng’s tough tactics in her battle with incumbent Assessor Doris Ward — who is not only a friend of the mayor’s but also one of the few elected African Americans in the city.

“But hey,” as one of Teng’s staffers said, “they still have to work together.”

That’s not the case with outgoing Public Defender Kimiko Burton and the man who replaced her, Jeff Adachi.

Like the Teng vs. Ward fight, the Adachi vs. Burton race was a brutal knock- down, drag-out affair.

It started with Burton (who is also the daughter of state Senate President John Burton) firing Adachi from his job in the public defender’s office shortly after Brown appointed her to replace Jeff Brown.

The Burton vs. Adachi brawl ended months later in a bitter March election in which Adachi knocked Burton for a loop with charges of nepotism.

And from the looks of things, the fight never ended.

Not only was Burton a no-show at Adachi’s swearing-in — in the 11th hour, the outgoing public defender approved as much as two months’ vacation time for three of her top office lieutenants.

And wouldn’t you know it, the vacations all start the very day Adachi officially takes over the office — effectively hamstringing Adachi from hiring his own top staffers for months to come.

Now that’s what we call a warm City Hall welcome.

SUPER SUNDAY: State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell was officially sworn in Sunday — a day before the rest of the Democratic crowd — because he said he wanted his 16-year-old daughter to be able to attend the ceremony and not miss school.

Give the wily O’Connell an “A” for creativity — and grabbing media attention.

O’Connell’s early inauguration managed to deliver a real prize: big media coverage on news-hungry TV stations Sunday. Better still, he didn’t have to share the limelight with an army of other Democratic statewide officials who were sworn in Monday; they mostly got buried in the mountain of Gray Davis news.

WILLIE WAXES: Mayor Willie Brown went up to Sacramento to swear in his good friend Jack O’Connell as the state’s new schools chief, but he drew the line at attending any of the inaugural parties.

Tooooo boring.

His friends, however, were determined to have him there — if not in body, then at least in spirit.

And in short order, lobbyist (and mega-gubernatorial fund-raiser) Darius Anderson was on the phone to the California Travel Industry Association, whose representatives got on the phone to Rodney Fong at the Wax Museum at Fisherman’s Wharf, who in turn pulled the life-size figure of Willie out of the museum’s lobby, packed it into a truck and headed off to the capital, where they set up the Waxed Willie at the governor’s bash.

“And it was some kind of night,” Fong said. “I figure we took about 650 photos of people with Willie.

“Some shook his hand, some kissed him,” Fong said. “But no, no one tossed a pie at him.”

Obviously, an out-of-town crowd.