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02/12/98- Updated 01:44 AM ET

Casinos, lobbying empower Indian tribes

WASHINGTON - The Mashantucket Pequots' dazzling national lobbying office reflects the success of the tribe's Connecticut casino. The etched glass walls, custom woodwork, turquoise frieze and Native American art rival the capital's swankiest clubs and blue-chip law offices.

Gambling has brought a few Indian tribes, like the Pequots, breathtaking wealth. For many others, it has brought subsistence, a break from oppressive poverty. And it has brought a lot of them to Washington to defend their new business.

Throughout modern history, a few tribes have hired Washington lawyers to represent them in land or water disputes. But in the decade since tribes were permitted to set up gambling enterprises, two new industries have flourished: Indian casinos and lobbying to support them.

"There are more tribes now who have the money to hire somebody in Washington than there used to be," says Harry Sachse, a veteran lobbyist for a firm that represents more than a dozen tribes.

Nearly 200 tribes - or tribal units like schools and water districts - have their own lobbyists here, representing what one congressional official estimated is a five-fold increase since the advent of casino gambling on reservations. Most of the lobbyists are either lawyers familiar with the arcane statutes governing tribes or influence brokers hired for their political connections.

"There's no question in my mind that the tribes that have casinos and are making a good bit of money now are much more active, and they are hiring much more high-profile Washington-based firms," says Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

"The object of any lobbying effort is to open doors," he said. "Whether you like it or not, that's the reality of how it is done."

Much of the lobbying is aimed at the Interior Department, which regulates tribal affairs. On Wednesday, Attorney General Janet Reno asked for an independent counsel to investigate whether Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt misled Congress in testimony about a disputed Wisconsin Indian casino application.

The dispute between the Minnesota and Wisconsin tribes that led to Babbitt's predicament was an example of what Campbell called a growing phenomenon: tribes turning their economic and political clout against each other.

In a 1995 memo, White House aide Loretta Avent wrote her boss, Harold Ickes, that it would be "disastrous" for the Clinton administration to meddle in such rivalries.

Tribal leaders, she wrote, have "already gone ballistic about other tribal governments who have greater access to the administration because of their ability to pay hired guns . . . and their belief that this unfairly gets things to happen."

At the same time they've retained lobbyists, tribes have begun to participate heavily in political fund-raising. From a trickle in 1992, donations by Indians rose to $1.8 million in the 1996 elections, and 86% of it went to Democrats. At least eight tribal representatives were invited to White House fund-raising coffees in 1996. And the Pequots bought $23,542 worth of tickets to President Clinton's inauguration last year.

Indian contributions as a proportion of all political giving by gaming interests have risen from about 8% in 1992 to 28% last year.

Indian gambling in 1995 brought in $4.5 billion, slightly more than 10% of the revenues from all gambling nationally.

A memo from a former Indian lobbyist to the White House in 1995 argued for better treatment for tribes, pointing out that "there is a lot of money in Indian country."

The lobbyist was Kevin Gover, who was sworn in last year as assistant secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs.

Although the growth of gambling has fueled the growth in lobbying, it's not the only reason, says JoAnn Chase, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. Republican control of Congress has brought a series of "hostile" legislative initiatives, she said, from threats to tribal sovereignty to taxing gambling income to cutting federal benefits for wealthier tribes.

As many as 70 tribal lobbyists meet at least biweekly to parcel out lobbying assignments. And tribes are considering buying their own building in Washington that would provide workspace for individual tribes as well as tribal organizations like her own, Chase says.

Other lobbyists said tribes are learning from grass-roots groups like organized labor and the Christian Coalition to harness their political power through voter registration and turnout efforts. That could make a potent difference in states like Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, Alaska and the Dakotas.

Learning the culture of Washington has at times been painful. In 1996, Oklahoma's Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribe drained its welfare fund to donate $107,000 to the Democrats, believing that would lead to return of tribal lands taken by the government. Tribal leaders won a lunch with Clinton, but nothing else. After the donation was publicized, the party returned the money.

It is all part of a necessary, if awkward, growth stage for tribes, Chase says. "That is outweighed by the danger of remaining neutral. Not participating will cause us more damage than the growing pains."

By Jim Drinkard, USA TODAY

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