WASHINGTON — Indian tribes have newfound worries that the nation’s governors will use their political and personal relationships with President Clinton to the states’ advantage in Indian gaming negotiations.
The governors’ relationship with Clinton is raising anxiety among some tribal leaders, who say they soon could be shut out of the political bartering in discussions of tribal-state gaming compacts. The tribes fear that the president, himself a former governor, will push for states’ interests because of the governors’ clout.
“President Clinton certainly was in a position of being influenced by his fellow governors,” said Charles Keechi, chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, which represents most of the nation’s 140 gambling tribes. “Western governors played an important part in the election for Clinton. … There’s an uneasy feeling among the tribes that there may be some influence still in existence.”
But several officials in governors’ offices and at the National Governors’ Association strongly dispute any suggestion that the governors are using their coziness with Clinton to further the states’ agenda in the war over Indian gaming.
“They’re not going around trying to use that leverage,” said Charilyn Cowan, general counsel to the National Governors’ Association. “If they were, they wouldn’t use it for gaming — it would be for another issue.”
The Indian gaming controversy is rooted in two emotional principles: states rights and tribal sovereignty. While several governors argue that Indian tribes are subverting state gaming laws, tribes counter that it is their legal right to establish gaming halls if they choose to do so.
Arizona Gov. J. Fife Symington has outlawed all casino gambling in efforts to block the activity on the state’s 21 reservations. The tribes already have taken their case to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who they say is obligated to uphold their gambling compact as their trustee.
Some sources close to the Indian gaming issue in Washington — mainly lobbyists and Capitol Hill aides — said some governors are raising the stakes in the debate by threatening to withhold support for the administration’s initiatives unless it curbs casino gambling on reservations.
“We have heard from a number of different sources, including people in the White House and Interior and both sides of the aisle, as well as in the Senate, that the governors have identified this as their number one issue and that there’s a sort of quid-pro-quo — if you resolve the gaming problem, we’ll support you,” said a congressional aide handling Indian affairs who asked not to be identified.
But the National Governors’ Association is hotly disputing that claim, and on Friday Gov. Roy Romer conducted a conference call with a dozen governors to allay fears that the association would link its support for Clinton’s economic plan to the Indian gaming issue.
National Governors’ Association spokeswoman Rae Bond said Indian gaming is only one of several critical issues on the governors’ agenda, and underscored Romer’s message to the governors.
“No way,” she said. “We would not withhold our support (for) compelling issues of national interest.”
The Clinton administration has yet to offer any formal policy on Indian gaming, although Clinton recommended pumping $5.5. million into a loan program for Indian gaming casinos in his economic stimulus package. The House Appropriations Committee later shifted that money to loans for Indian education facilities.
But the Indian gaming conflict sometimes puts even the strongest allegiances in conflict — something Babbitt attested to in his comments to more than 100 tribal representatives at an Indian gaming meeting Friday.
“I’m a trustee of all of you — I’m also a secretary who serves at the pleasure of the president, whom I admire greatly, whom I want desperately to be of use to and whom I want to succeed,” said Babbitt, a former Arizona governor. “And therefore, as I am busy contemplating going into battle with all of you, I’m waking up thinking, `Is this what I’m supposed to be doing for the President of the United States?”‘
What kind of pressure Clinton puts on Babbitt — if any — is what some tribal supporters say the governors are trying to control.
At the Indian gaming meeting, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, said he was told that states “undertook a campaign of phone calls to the White House to register their protests” against Indian gaming. The tribes consider Inouye one of their strongest congressional supporters on the gaming issue.
Already Arizona’s Symington has spoken personally with Clinton about the issue, while Nevada Gov. Bob Miller also has called the White House. Indian leaders have yet to discuss Indian gaming with Clinton, but are trying to arrange a meeting.
The tribes have strong and vocal support in the gaming conflict from one governor — Joan Finney, a Democrat from Kansas.