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Native Americans Challenge Gorton

by Eric Pianin
Washington Post, April 3, 2000

For years, Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) has engaged in an extraordinary feud with Native American groups, battling them over issues from fishing rights to their casino profits and accusing tribes of using their special legal status to harm non-Indian business people and land owners.

Dubbed the "last Indian fighter" by his detractors, Gorton also has tried to strip tribes of their immunity from lawsuits, a hallmark of Indian law for generations.

Indians are now fighting back--in a big way. Once little more than supplicants on Capitol Hill, many of the country's most politically active tribes have banded together to declare Gorton public enemy No. 1, vowing to raise millions of dollars to unseat him when he faces the voters this fall for reelection.

It promises to be an uphill struggle. Gorton is an entrenched incumbent with a talent for raising large sums of campaign cash himself, and Democrats are fielding what many political analysts consider a relatively weak field of challengers. But the very act of assembling a war chest highlights a new and much more aggressive form of political advocacy being mounted by tribes all over the country.

"This probably will be one of the most active campaigns in history," said W. Ron Allen, a member of the Jamestown S'Klallam tribe in Washington state and first vice president of the National Congress of American Indians. "We want to make a strong statement that if you attack the tribes, there will be consequences."

The contentious rhetoric attests to the enormous stakes involved: Indian tribes are reaping billions of dollars from casino gambling, commercial fisheries and other such enterprises, dramatically improving their economic outlook but stirring resentment from neighbors and competing businesses. Having secured special legal protections and powers in the courts over the last several decades, Native Americans are now being forced to defend their rights in the political arena.

Given the booming revenue, tribes are better positioned than ever to protect those interests, having contributed millions of dollars to the two political parties and forked over millions more for lawyers, lobbyists and public relations specialists. Ten of the wealthier tribes have even opened lobbying offices in Washington.

In states such as California, where Indian tribes have been generous contributors to Gov. Gray Davis (D) and other leading politicians, such efforts are reaping huge dividends. Last month, California voters approved a referendum giving tribes the exclusive right to operate gambling facilities, after Indians saturated the state's most expensive media markets with nonstop television advertising.

"Indian tribes are becoming much more politically sophisticated in terms of special-interest politics," said George Cornell, a history professor and director of the Native American Institute at Michigan State University. "It was a hard-learned lesson for them, but if you don't look out for your own, who's going to look out for you?"

Perhaps nowhere are the battle lines drawn more starkly than in Washington state, where 27 independent tribal governments have launched lucrative and often high-impact ventures, from casino operations, commercial fishing and tax-exempt smoke shops and liquor stores to housing developments and a huge amphitheater.

As these ventures have proliferated, tensions have arisen between Indians and their neighbors. Many non-Indian homeowner groups have complained, for example, about Indians trampling at night over private beaches on Puget Sound to dig for shellfish guaranteed them under ancient treaties. Some tribes have thumbed their noses at local zoning and state environmental rules in undertaking commercial development.

As Gorton, 72, has increasingly sided with business and the neighbors in such disputes, he has drawn the tribes' fire. Once considered somewhat a liberal Republican, Gorton has taken more conservative stands on high-visibility issues including timber harvesting and Indian fishing rights.

Many Washington politicians agree that Gorton's feud with the Indians stems from his unsuccessful efforts as state attorney general to challenge Indian salmon fishing rights--a case that went to the Supreme Court in 1979. After Gorton won election to the Senate in 1980, defeating liberal icon Warren Magnuson, one of his first acts was to introduce a bill to rescind Indian treaty rights to steelhead trout. Gorton insists there is nothing personal about the dispute and says he rarely gets credit for supporting increased funding for Indian programs. His main complaint is that tribes exercise too much authority over non-Indians who live and work within their reservations, producing an "unlevel playing field."

He said tribes, like state and local governments, should be held liable for unlawful conduct or breach of contracts, and "shouldn't be able to stiff their neighbors."

"I believe very strongly in the rule of law," Gorton said.

In fact, tribes across the country have voluntarily relinquished some of their sovereignty by buying insurance for their casinos and business operations and waiving their immunity against lawsuits to the limits of the insurance coverage. But Gorton says that's not enough.

Gorton has crusaded for change--with mixed success--as a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. More problematic for the tribes have been Gorton's maneuverings on the Senate Appropriations Committee, where he has used his influence to side with local residents in their disputes with tribes.

The tiny Shoalwater Bay Tribe reservation covers only about a square mile of land in southwestern Washington, and much of that is saltwater tideland. The tribe acquired 170 acres of land near Ridgefield, Wash., about 60 miles from the reservation, and subsequently unveiled plans for 1,580 town houses and some light manufacturing plants.

But early last year when the tribe asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs to put the land into a federal trust, thereby exempting it from local taxation and zoning requirements, city and county officials vigorously protested. The officials warned that the development would play havoc with traffic, burden the schools and threaten a wetland.

At that point Gorton stepped in, adding a provision to the Interior Department spending bill prohibiting the BIA from putting the land into trust until the tribe gained county approval of the project. Tribal leaders were furious, but Gorton said that if he hadn't intervened, "You would have a major housing development on land not subject to taxation."

Such efforts have earned Gorton the undying enmity of many of the tribes. Joe DeLaCruz, a leader of the Quinault Indian Nation in Taholah, Wash., contends that Gorton has waged "outright attacks on our tribal existence." Others close to the controversy, including Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) and Kevin Gover, assistant interior secretary for Indian affairs, say tensions are so high that Gorton and many Indian leaders are talking past one another.

The Quinault, Jamestown S'Klallam and other tribes came together last year to form the First American Education Project, a Washington state nonprofit group that is aggressively raising funds for a media campaign against Gorton, who spent $4.8 million to win his last election and hopes to raise $7 million this time.

The Indians' campaign will include TV, radio and newspaper issue ads highlighting Gorton's environmental record and his assault on Indians' rights. The group also will directly contribute to the state Democratic Party. Last year several tribes kicked in $20,000 to help the state party pay for a poll to probe Gorton's weaknesses. Ron Allen said Indian leaders have "high hopes" of raising at least $1.5 million this year to defeat Gorton.

A year ago there was speculation that Gorton would face a tough Democratic challenge, possibly from Gov. Gary Locke or state Attorney General Christine Gregoire. Instead, state Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn and former one-term House member Maria Cantwell, two lesser lights, are slugging it out for the Democratic nomination in a race that won't be decided until September.

The changing complexion of the Senate contest has some tribes worried, and for all the talk of ousting Gorton there is disagreement among the tribes, with their competing interests, over how hard to push.

The wealthy Muckleshoots, for example, are having second thoughts about challenging a powerful incumbent. The Auburn, Wash., tribe is trying to complete construction of a $30 million outdoor amphitheater for concerts near its casino in a rural area above the White River. But the project has drawn strong criticism from Gorton and residents of the surrounding area because of the traffic and noise it would generate. The tribe voluntarily halted construction in April 1998 and agreed to submit to an environmental review after residents went to court.

Rob Otsea, tribal attorney, said recently that tribal leaders are trying to decide whether it makes sense to throw major resources into the Senate race. "We want to see if there's a viable candidate," Otsea said.

Staff researcher Lynn Davis contributed to this report.

Eric Pianin
Native Americans Challenge Gorton
Washington Post, April 3, 2000

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