Tribes’ Top Target in 2000: Sen. Slade Gorton


American Indian tribes, plagued by poverty and vastly outnumbered by non-Indians, in the past have had little political muscle to flex against elected officials they disliked.

Now that a few tribes earn big money with successful casinos and other ventures, Indian leaders are increasingly taking their political agenda into the 21st century realm of attack ads, Web sites and soft money.

The tribes’ top target in 2000: Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.).

Indian leaders have set up a group called the First Americans Education Project with the goal of raising at least $1 million in “soft money"--unregulated, unreported and unlimited political donations--to run television ads attacking Gorton as an enemy of tribes.


At a National Congress of American Indians meeting in February, NCAI president Susan Masten and vice president Ron Allen urged tribes to donate to the anti-Gorton campaign.

“There’s no limit to the amount of money you can contribute to bring Slade Gorton down,” said Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe in Washington state. He also reminded tribal leaders that “no one can know” who donated to the fund.

Gorton seems unruffled at the prospect of attack ads funded by tribes, although his campaign mailed a fund-raising letter last year saying “Indian tribes flush with gambling dollars” were willing to “spend whatever it takes to defeat him.”

“I am firmly of the belief that we cannot constitutionally limit the amount of money groups can raise for campaigns, and what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander,” Gorton said in an interview. “They have a constitutional right to do that.”

The anti-Gorton effort is part of a broader increase in tribes’ political activity in the last decade. Tribes’ campaign donations quickly expanded in the 1990s after a 1987 Supreme Court decision held that tribes could offer gambling on reservations in states with other forms of legalized betting.

The ascent was most striking in California, where tribes spent more than $66 million in 1998 in a successful fight for a ballot measure expanding reservation gambling there. Tribes also were among the biggest donors to California legislative races in 1998, with three giving $1 million or more.

Courts later struck down the 1998 casino initiative, and California tribes raised $20.7 million to support the ballot measure passed March 7 to allow similar casino pacts negotiated with Gov. Gray Davis.

Tribes’ political efforts also cut across party lines. Tribes gave nearly $110,000 in soft money to national Republican Party organizations in 1999 and more than $95,000 to Democratic Party groups, according to figures from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Several tribal leaders involved in the anti-Gorton campaign are Republicans who supported GOP presidential candidate John McCain. Allen co-chaired the Arizona senator’s outreach committee to Indians, for example.

“I’m a Republican. This guy [Gorton] is a Republican, and it’s hard for me to say this, but . . . we’re going to get a good Democrat in there,” Allen said at the NCAI meeting.

Indian leaders’ animosity to Gorton dates at least to the 1970s, when as Washington state attorney general he squared off against tribes in several court cases, including one in which courts upheld Indians’ treaty rights to catch salmon.

In the Senate, Gorton has drawn tribes’ ire for repeatedly trying to make tribal governments subject to lawsuits and restructure the federal funding system for tribes. Indian leaders say Gorton misunderstands tribes’ unique rights as separate governments and would expose tribes to financially ruinous lawsuits.

“We’re governments. Why should someone be able to wipe us out?” said Joe DeLaCruz, former chairman of the Quinault tribe in Washington state.

Gorton said he does not want to wipe out tribal governments. As chairman of the Senate subcommittee overseeing Indian spending, Gorton said he has supported increased funding for Indian programs such as health care, education and law enforcement.

But Gorton said non-Indians who have disputes with tribes--such as over tribal taxes, hunting and fishing rights or reservation land use--have no way to make tribes negotiate settlements to those disputes. He cites conflicts in Washington state over the Muckleshoot tribe’s plans to build an amphitheater on their reservation outside Seattle, the Makah tribe’s hunting of a gray whale under their treaty with the federal government and the Yakama Nation’s attempts to tax alcohol sold by non-Indian businesses on their reservation.

“I believe firmly that Indians should have the complete and total right to govern their own affairs,” Gorton said. “I don’t believe they should have the right to govern the affairs of others who are not members of their tribe.”

While some Indians have questioned whether such a frontal attack on Gorton could backfire if Gorton wins in November, DeLaCruz dismissed those concerns.

“We’ve had to spend a lot of money [lobbying] to get his bills killed,” DeLaCruz said. “What more can he do to us?”