Lobbyists: Tribes, Not Candidates, Wield Power in California
by Jack Shinar
Date Posted: 9/8/2003 3:53:54 PM
Last Updated: 9/8/2003 3:55:07 PM

California voters will decide Oct. 7 whether to recall Gov. Gray Davis and replace him with one of more than one hundred candidates. But as far as the three influential Sacrameno lobbyists are concerned, the decision doesn't figure to have much of an impact on Thoroughbred racing in the state.

Of much greater significance to racing, they said, is the intense political pressure organized Indian gaming has placed on the recall and the race for a successor if it succeeds.

The tribes, which have a monopoly on casino gaming in the state following a voter-approved constitutional amendment in 2000, have given Davis considerable financial support in the past. Davis signed a number of agreements, or compacts, allowing the establishment of tribe-owned casinos, which numbered 52 in the state as of last year.

"Gov. Davis has vetoed numerous horse racing bills on the basis that he is opposed to the expansion of gambling, but at the same time he has presided over the biggest explosion of gaming in the history of the state," said Rod Blonien, who consults for the Thoroughbred Owners of California.

Norm Towne, who has represented various racing interests in the state since the late 1970s, said the tribal gambling industry has grown from zero revenue in California just a few years ago to as much as $5 or $6 billion this year. He predicts that in five to seven years, tribal gaming revenue in California will surpass Nevada, which reported gaming revenue of $9.3 billion in 2002.

The tribes have turned much of their success into political muscle.

"They are the most effective political force in my time in state government and maybe ever," Towne said. "It's awesome how much power they have."

Blonien and Bob Fox, legislative lobbyist for the California Thoroughbred Trainers Association, believe Indian influence will continue to exert itself no matter how the recall turns out. While critical of Davis for doing little for racing, they noted most of the major recall candidates have also accepted financial contributions from tribes to their campaigns.

"The lieutenant governor (Cruz Bustamante) in particular would be a concern" to racing if he were in the governor's office, said Fox, who was reluctant to speak on the record about candidates.

Bustamante, a Democrat, has reportedly collected nearly $3 million for his campaign this year, the majority from various Indian interests.

Blonien and Fox agreed racing would get the fairest shake from actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Republican front-runner.

"Schwarzenegger has said that tribal gaming is a monopoly, that they do not pay taxes on their revenues, and that he will not accept contributions from them," Blonien said.

Fox said that as a successful businessman, Schwarzenegger would also understand the issues facing the sport better than most of the main candidates.

Of Davis, Towne said: "While he hasn't been a big proponent, I don't think the present governor has been that bad for racing."

Towne said Davis signed account wagering into law over tribal opposition.

"When he has been properly approached and the issue was critical, we have generally been successful," Towne said. "The tribes themselves don't want to allow any expansion at all of gaming they don't control."

Towne believes racing blew it by failing to partner with the Indians when they were seeking recognition for their casino movement 10 years ago.

"Racing could have joined with the Indians co-promoting our business, but (racing industry leaders) tended to think they had to maintain absolute control," he said.

As a result, the sport faces an uphill battle if it wants to improve its marketing penetration (additional satellite wagering facilities or account wagering allowances) or add slot machines at tracks through legislative means.

"Government is not going to help the industry," Towne said. "Racing needs to come up with more creative ways to improve (its) own lot."

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