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Indian tribes have been a powerful force in Minnesota politics for nearly two decades, bankrolling major political party groups with hundreds of thousands of dollars for their campaigns. In 2011 they spread their money almost evenly between DFLers and Republicans.

Tribal gaming dollars go bipartisan

MIGA Executive Director John McCarthy wants to hold on to the tribal gambling monopoly. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Longtime DFL edge in fundraising dries up in the face of GOP majorities

Indian tribes have been a powerful force in Minnesota politics for nearly two decades, bankrolling major political party groups with hundreds of thousands of dollars for their campaigns. All told, the state’s nine tribal political action committees have donated more than $5.8 million to influence elections in the North Star State over the last 15 years.

The beneficiaries of tribal dollars have been mostly Democrats. It’s a strong political alliance that some say was forged more than 20 years ago when former DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich negotiated agreements that gave the tribes a monopoly on casino revenues in Minnesota. In the 2010 election cycle, the state’s tribe-backed PACs contributed $1.2 million to political causes. Roughly $750,000 of that money went to the DFL legislative caucuses, while their GOP counterparts were given less than $60,000.

But that dynamic has shifted dramatically after the GOP takeover of the House and Senate in 2010. With threats to the tribal gambling monopoly in the state growing more palpable, the state’s tribes took a much more bipartisan approach to political giving last year, according to a review of campaign finance reports released on Wednesday. DFL candidates and causes received $176,200 in contributions in 2011, while Republicans took in $152,150 — almost a 50-50 split.

“We support individuals who support our issues,” said Minnesota Indian Gaming Association (MIGA) Executive Director John McCarthy. “There’s a considerable amount of them on the Republican side at this point. [The majority members] generally are viewed as people that you want to help a little bit more. This way here, we kind of split it. It’s a pretty even split. They can’t be too mad at us.”

Republican Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, a longtime supporter of expanded gambling and specifically racino, chuckled at the shift in contributions, noting that tribal members and lobbyists alike have started popping up at GOP fundraisers and events. “They weren’t there when we had 21 members,” he said. “It doesn’t surprise me.”

Tribes gave evenly in 2011

A trio of tribes tied to the largest casino operations in the state are the key power brokers and contributors at the Minnesota Capitol. They also have the most to lose if the state passes expanded gambling in the form of slots at racetracks or a metro-area casino.

The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux community, which runs the Mystic Lake Casino, gave the most to political causes in 2011, donating about $59,700 to DFL causes and about $33,100 to GOP causes. That’s a dramatic shift from the tribe’s last nonelection year giving in 2009, when DFLers received $60,000 in donations from the tribe and Republicans received a single $100 donation to the campaign to re-elect Sen. Warren Limmer.

The tribe also shifted its contribution strategy in another way: Last year the tribe wrote checks — mostly in increments of $100 — to a host of legislators who have said they are against gambling expansion. In the past, Shakopee and the other tribes have donated almost entirely to political party units, not candidates.

But not every legislator is excited about the tribe’s sudden interest in his or her re-election. Of about 113 checks sent to individual legislators, roughly three dozen were returned to the tribe. Among the legislators to return checks: DFL Reps. Ann Lenczewski and Joe Atkins, Republican Rep. King Banaian, and GOP Assistant Senate Majority Leaders Roger Chamberlain and Paul Gazelka. Many legislators do not take any PAC money, but some specifically want to separate themselves from gambling cash in 2012 as the issue heats up in the Legislature, sources say.

The giving shift was even more dramatic in the case of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, which operates casinos in Mille Lacs and Hinckley. In 2009, the tribe’s year-end report showed no contributions to Republicans. In 2011, their PAC gave more to House and Senate Republicans than to the two DFL caucuses, donating about $48,500 to Republican caucuses and only $26,000 to DFLers in the Legislature. The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, which runs a casino in downtown Duluth, gave $17,100 in donations to DFLers last year and $15,500 to Republicans. The PAC’s 2009 campaign finance report shows a single $500 political contribution to former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert (which was never cashed).

Unlike many of its tribal counterparts, the Prairie Island Indian Community PAC has a history of bipartisan support. “There’s a basic philosophy, and it’s that we support legislators who support us on our issues, which is nuclear waste and energy and gaming expansion,” Prairie Island Lobbyist John Knapp said. “They don’t just look at it through the gaming lens.”

Prairie Island is not a part of MIGA, Knapp noted, but even so, the tribe’s proportion of GOP contributions increased markedly from the previous election cycle. In 2009 Prairie Island contributed $3,000 to Republican candidates and causes while donating $8,500 to their DFL counterparts. In 2011 they gave Republican candidates and causes $56,500, while DFLers received $31,000.

Even the minor tribal PACS, which have given small sums over the years, have increased their giving to Republicans. The Lower Sioux Political Education Fund gave all but $500 of their $6,500 in contributions to DFL organizations in 2009. Last year Republican candidates and causes took in $3,000 from the PAC, while their DFL counterparts received $4,500.

GOP majorities, gaming fuel giving

Former GOP legislator-turned-lobbyist Bill Haas believes the shift in tribal donations is almost entirely attributable to the increased talk of expanded gambling. “You have the Vikings stadium and people talking about expanded gambling and how they could shift that way,” Haas noted. “The tribes are reaching out to Republicans who have said, ‘We will not expand gambling.’” (In fact, the nearly $325,000 given by the tribes in 2011 far surpassed the total for every other nonelection year except 2005 — another period in which the Legislature found itself on the eve of a major stadium push, in that case for the Twins.)

During Haas’ time as a House member in the 1990s and early 2000s, Republicans rarely got donations from the tribes. “It’s something you knew, when you were fundraising, that the DFL was getting and you were not,” he said. Haas now lobbies for the White Earth tribe.

In the view of other Indian gambling lobbyists, the shift in giving is partly a response to new Republican leadership at the Capitol that’s not openly hostile to the tribes. That used to be a problem, one gambling lobbyist said, especially when former House Speaker Steve Sviggum and former Senate Minority Leader Dick Day were in office. Both became aggressive racino supporters while they were in the Legislature.

“If you look back to the 1990s, giving was pretty equal to both sides from the tribes,” the lobbyist said. “The DFL always got more because we had more supporters on their side, but as long as the leadership wasn’t actively hostile on both sides, we have given pretty evenly. [But] in that period where we had Dick Day and Steve Sviggum, what was the point?”

McCarthy agrees. “Why would anybody contribute to those two groups when the leadership in those two groups is after you like the devil after water?” he said. McCarthy noted that his relationship with House Speaker Kurt Zellers is much better than it was with Sviggum. “The speaker has been upfront, willing to talk with us and meet with us and tell us how he’s feeling about things,” McCarthy said. “We’ve never had that before.”

Sviggum’s return to legislative action as the Senate GOP’s executive assistant doesn’t make the tribes very happy. “I don’t know how active he is,” McCarthy said. “I’ve heard that he’s very active right now. That doesn’t help.”

Senjem, who once again introduced a racino bill in the Legislature last week, said he doesn’t think the increased tribal donations will change the game at the Capitol this session. “Everyone is pretty firm in their own beliefs,” he said. “Donations are all part of the mix, but I don’t think it changes much.”

Staff writer Charley Shaw contributed reporting to this story.

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