Tribe Flexes Influence in Doyle-Friendly Ads

By Nahal Toosi and Steve Schultze, Milwaukee Jounral Sentinal
October 24, 2002

Tribe flexes influence in Doyle-friendly ads
Mine ads are first to give indirect Indian backing

Madison – For the first time, a Wisconsin Indian tribe is airing a political ad that indirectly supports a candidate in a statewide election, a move one observer says is part of a nationwide trend of harder-hitting political activity by increasingly wealthy tribes.

The Forest County Potawatomi ad, which favors Jim Doyle, the Democratic candidate in the governor’s race, focuses on environmental concerns over the Crandon mine. While the ad does not tell viewers to vote for Doyle, it casts him as the pro-environment candidate and says he wants to ban cyanide in mining and close legal loopholes for the mining industry.

And that Republican Gov. Scott McCallum doesn’t.

Tom Krajewski, a tribe spokesman, said placement of the ad was unrelated to Doyle’s or McCallum’s stand on gambling. Both candidates have said they oppose adding more casinos but have left the door open to consideration of longer-term gaming compacts with the state, as well as raising limits on current games. The compacts that regulate the casinos owned by the state’s 11 tribes are up for renewal next year.

McCallum has said he hopes to generate more state revenue by squeezing another $100 million annually from the tribes, which earn loads of money from their casinos. The Potawatomi Bingo Casino in Milwaukee, alone, is turning an annual profit of more than $100 million.

Krajewski said the ad tries to educate the public about the Crandon mine’s potential impact on the environment and is not a plug for Doyle. He said it was the first time a Wisconsin tribe had done a media campaign on something other than gambling.

“This is an issue ad; it’s not a campaign ad,” Krajewski said.

The Potawatomi have long opposed opposed the Crandon mine, a proposed zinc and copper site just south of Crandon near their reservation in Forest County. The tribe contends that the mine would contaminate groundwater and streams and lakes in the region. Both Doyle and McCallum have expressed interest in the state buying the 5,000-acre property, but McCallum has backed away from that idea, saying it’s too expensive. He has since touted the mine’s economic benefits.

Issue ads are not regulated by campaign laws because they don’t specifically advocate for or against a candidate’s election.

Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, described the Potawatomi’s latest offering as a “phony issue ad.” Such “phony issue ads,” which clearly favor one candidate, deserve regulation, McCabe said.

“Obviously, they made their calculations that Doyle would be better than McCallum,” McCabe said, adding that Doyle’s lead in the polls may have made the risk of taking sides less daunting.

“If the Potawatomi decided that McCallum is in trouble and that Doyle looks like the clear-cut favorite, maybe they feel safe jumping in now. A few weeks ago, they may have wanted to stay above that fray.”

Across the country, Indian tribes are increasing their political activity and, in many cases, moving beyond plain issues to supporting individual candidates, said Mark Jarboe, who heads the Indian Law Practice Group at Dorsey & Whitney LLP, a Minneapolis law firm.

Much of this is because of revenue from gaming, which has given the tribes more money and economic influence in the last two decades. Arizona and California are two states where tribes have become very active, Jarboe said.

“Indian tribes are not unlike any other group that has interests that are affected by government and the political process,” Jarboe said. “Tribes have realized that in order to protect their interests or see their interests advanced, it’s important that the candidate who thinks like they do or supports the positions favorable to tribal interests get elected.”

The Potawatomi TV ad is the third stage of an overall media campaign by the tribe to stop the Crandon mine, Krajewski said. More general ads on the dangers of cyanide mining were aired earlier this year, along with radio ads and billboards.

The tribe is spending about $750,000 overall since January on its media campaign against the mine, Krajewski said. The current television ad is running through Nov. 5 in Madison, Wausau, Rhinelander and Green Bay and will air in Milwaukee during Sunday morning news talk shows, he said.

Crystal Holtz, a spokeswoman for the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, said she didn’t see the Oneida backing candidates soon.

“As far as the Oneida goes, our campaign is basically just getting out to the membership the issues that we think are important: compacting, health, education,” she said.