Casino tribe spends more than $270,000 in special election

Times Staff Writer

In the last two weeks, a Riverside County Indian tribe has independently spent more than $270,000 on behalf of a Democratic candidate in Tuesday’s special election to fill a Long Beach area congressional seat.

The expenditures by the Morongo Band of Mission Indians greatly outweigh other donations in the relatively quiet race to replace Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, who died in April. Since June 14, Morongo has paid for door hangers, newspaper ads, mailers and phone calls to voters on behalf of Jenny Oropeza, a state senator from Long Beach.

The amount spent in the Morongo campaign -- by law such expenditures cannot be made in consultation with the candidate -- has exceeded the $219,000 Oropeza reported raising in direct donations for the entire campaign as of June 6. It is more than 2 1/2 times the $105,000 that Oropeza’s chief competitor, Assemblywoman Laura Richardson (D-Long Beach), reported collecting by the same date.

Eighteen candidates from a number of parties are running to represent the heavily minority, Democratic district, which encompasses Compton, Carson, much of Long Beach and parts of South L.A. They include Valerie McDonald, the deceased congresswoman’s daughter. If no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote Tuesday, a runoff will be held among the top vote-getters of each party on Aug. 21.


Though Morongo spokesman Patrick Dorinson said Friday that the tribe would have no comment on its campaign, Oropeza voted in April for legislation that would allow Morongo to more than triple the number of slot machines at its Cabazon casino. One of the Morongo-paid mailers on her behalf is a post card featuring the word courage that credits Oropeza for supporting the bill in the Senate, Oropeza campaign manager Parke Skelton said. A newspaper ad urged people to vote for Oropeza because of her opposition to the war in Iraq.

Richardson said she got two pieces of Morongo-paid mail at her home.

She called the Morongo expenditures “off the charts” but predicted that voters “are going to see through exactly what’s going on.”

The tribe’s investment in Oropeza’s race is a fraction of what it spent in April on a statewide television campaign urging the Assembly to vote for its gambling expansion legislation. A spokesman for the tribe said Friday that the tribe spent $2 million on that effort.

That campaign included mail, phone calls and door-to-door visits in the districts of some Assembly Democrats who have resisted voting for the legislation.

The Morongo bill is one of five that would allow five Southern California tribes to expand their casinos from a total of 10,000 to 32,500 slot machines. In return, the tribes would give the state between 15% and 25% of the revenue from the additional machines. Analysts say the deal could eventually generate an additional half-billion dollars a year for the state.

The state Senate raised little fuss about the deals, which were negotiated by the tribes and the administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and by law cannot be changed, only approved or defeated by the Legislature.

But the bills have languished for two months in the Assembly. There, Democrats have raised concerns about whether the agreements give the state sufficient authority to review casino finances. Labor unions, traditional Democratic supporters, have also been lobbying lawmakers to reject the agreements because they do not include provisions that make it easier for casino workers to organize. Such provisions are necessary, union officials say, because some basic federal labor rights do not apply to workers on Indian reservations.


The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and many individual unions have endorsed Richardson.

The Morongo-funded ads and mailers on behalf of Oropeza may not make much difference, political observer Allan Hoffenblum said.

Turnout in the special election isn’t expected to top 15%, he said, and the dedicated voters who make the effort tend to be informed voters who aren’t swayed by campaign brochures.

“When you’re dealing with that low of a turnout, paid advertising has a minimal impact,” said Hoffenblum, publisher of the Target Book, which tracks legislative and congressional races.


The winner, he predicted, will be whichever candidate “does the best job on identifying their voters and getting them to turn out at the polls.”