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Originally published September 2, 2012 at 7:40 PM | Page modified September 2, 2012 at 9:03 PM

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Democrat-leaning tribes find ally in Republican McKenna

On several fronts, Rob McKenna has become an unlikely ally of the tribal governments that have helped maintain Democratic Party control in Olympia. Indian tribes haven't abandoned the Democrats by any measure, as Jay Inslee has outraised McKenna more than 5-to-1 among tribes.

Tacoma News Tribune

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Rob McKenna is siding with Indian tribes and against some fellow Republicans in the Legislature who look to the nontribal gambling industry as a potential jackpot for the state budget.

On several fronts, in fact, McKenna has become an unlikely ally of the tribal governments that have helped maintain Democratic Party control in Olympia. As attorney general, he has visited every reservation in the state — an outreach effort that even a tribal leader who supports rival Jay Inslee calls "unprecedented."

Tribes have rewarded him with a share of their campaign contributions. The money he has received is far less than Democrat Inslee but still vastly more than other Republicans who have run for governor in the recent past.

"Tribes historically have always leaned Democrat, but over the last 10 years or so we've become more politically astute and we're more attentive to what is the political position of the candidates," said Inslee backer W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallum Tribe and president of the Washington Indian Gaming Association. "Tribes are being like a lot of special interests out there and they're hedging their bets."

Indian tribes haven't abandoned the Democrats by any measure. Inslee, with more than $50,000, has outraised McKenna more than 5-to-1 among tribes. While the Puyallup Tribe, for example, has given equal amounts to both, more tribes have contributed only to Inslee.

"Predominantly," Allen said, "I think the tribes are still going to lean toward Jay and the Democratic Party."

McKenna said he thinks contributions "have actually been pretty balanced in this election and I think they'll continue to be balanced."

That's about the best a Republican can hope for: that tribes will hold back from making major infusions into Democratic Party coffers, as they did in 2008 when the Tulalip, Puyallup and Muckleshoot tribes were three of the biggest donors to PACs for the state party — which in turn helped fund Gov. Chris Gregoire's re-election campaign.

That could still happen again, with six weeks left before ballots go out to voters for the Nov. 6 election.

But so far, instead of the state party, the biggest beneficiaries of tribal money this time around are House and Senate Democrats. Their PACs have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Puyallups, Muckleshoots and the Gaming Association's Campaign for Tribal Self-Reliance — more than they took in four years ago. All three are also McKenna donors.

Gambling expansion?

Tribal leaders appreciate that neither gubernatorial candidate is inclined to grant nontribal card rooms their big wish of allowing slot-style machines that Indian casinos already have.

"I think we have enough gambling in the state and (it's) appropriately based on the reservations where the money stays in the local community," McKenna said.

It's a sentiment he shares with Inslee, who said he would rather see gambling profits stay in tribes and communities than head to far-flung corporate headquarters "from China to Nevada."

Card-room operators point to their own local jobs, in addition to the $190 million a year they say slots would raise for government. They employed 10,000 people here about seven years ago, but that's down to less than 6,000 today as their table games struggle to compete with casinos and their video machines, said Dolores Chiechi, executive director of the Recreational Gaming Association.

"The public wants electronic gaming," she said.

Voters decided in 2004 they didn't want slot-style machines in off-reservation card rooms, though, and overwhelmingly rejected a ballot measure that would have allowed them.

Legislative Republicans, who aren't united in support of giving nontribal card rooms their wish anyway, don't expect any friction with McKenna.

"I wouldn't push it as an issue until I had a chance to talk to Rob directly and point out the reasons we feel this is a fairness issue and not an expansion (of gambling)," said GOP Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County, "and if he still feels strongly that ... he doesn't support this then I certainly wouldn't be proposing something that would be in contradiction with our new governor."

Neither candidate likes another perennial revenue suggestion: persuading tribes to hand over a piece of their casino proceeds, as they do in some other states.

Gregoire negotiated compacts that allowed tribes to expand casino operations without sharing revenue. The state estimates Washington's tribal casinos brought in $1.95 billion in the year that ended in June 2011.

The state can't tax casinos, and tribes would have to agree to any revenue sharing.

The state would need either a threat — such as the expansion of gambling in off-reservation card rooms, which the candidates oppose — or a sweetener, such as shutting those card rooms down and giving exclusive rights to tribes.

Perhaps the only visible difference between the two candidates on gambling is that while McKenna opposes loosening Washington's ban on online gambling, Inslee isn't taking a position.

At the federal level, Congress is considering legalizing Internet poker and other online games.

Washington has one of the toughest laws against online gaming in the nation, with criminal penalties for violators.

Candidates disagree

The candidates also have points of difference on other issues affecting Indian Country.

Inslee pushed in Congress to let tribes prosecute non-Indians accused of domestic violence on reservations; McKenna prefers to leave such cases in the hands of federal prosecutors.

Inslee and Allen also point to Inslee's backing of a permanent extension of a Native American health law, which passed as part of President Obama's health-care overhaul, expanding the role of the federal Indian Health Service.

McKenna joined other attorneys general in challenging the broader law in court.

"I'm the guy who's been standing up for tribal health issues," Inslee said. "My opponent was the guy who tried to dismantle the (extension) that it took us 10 years to pass."

McKenna has said repeatedly he didn't have other parts of the health-care law in his sights when he challenged its mandate for people to buy insurance and its expansion of Medicaid. But the attorneys general asked for the whole law to be struck down; McKenna says he was outvoted.

At the state level, Indian tribes and environmentalists are lobbying for tougher water-quality standards in a process that will be left to the next governor to finish.

McKenna calls more generally for reducing regulations on business so they don't exceed federal standards unless there is a clear reason and a measurable goal. Inslee suggests that means the Republican's rules would be too lax.

Worries about those health and environmental issues persuade Allen to support Inslee, who he said has been a consistent champion for Indian Country.

But Dave Burnett, the chairman of the Chehalis Tribe, which has contributed more money to McKenna than to Inslee, said McKenna has "made a concerted effort over time."

McKenna said he has met with all 29 tribes, and collaborated with Native American leaders on, for example, tribal access to the state training academy for police.

Tim Hamilton, who has sat on the opposite side of a courtroom from the attorney general's office, charges that relationships with tribes have played a role in McKenna's defense of gas-tax compacts between the state and tribes.

"I think it's fair to say that there's a perception here that Mr. McKenna's performance of his duties as attorney general has been influenced by the fact that he would like to have a less than adversarial relationship with the tribes come this election cycle," Hamilton said.

Hamilton's group of gas-station owners is challenging the compacts, in a case that the state Supreme Court allowed Thursday to move forward. The most common arrangement under the deals provides for the state to reimburse tribes for 75 percent of the gas taxes they collect, which they are supposed to spend on transportation.

The Automotive United Trades Organization contends the money is being misused and gives tribal gas stations an unfair edge. Tribes say they're using the refunds for the intended purposes.

McKenna's office said he was just doing his job. His spokeswoman Janelle Guthrie said "it is the attorney general's constitutional duty to put forth a vigorous defense of our clients in cases against them. We're treating this case no differently."

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