This year, the long road to the governor's office runs through the high desert reservation of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians.
It also stops at the reservations — and casinos — of the Sycuan and Viejas bands of the Kumeyaay Nation east of San Diego.
In fact, the campaign trail crosses many of the state's Indian reservations, especially those with lucrative gambling compacts. That's where Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman — along with candidates for other offices — are seeking the support and potentially hefty donations of tribal leaders.
At stake is the financial backing of a state gambling industry that generates an estimated $7.2 billion a year in revenue. Also at play are the state-negotiated gambling compacts of 47 tribes that expire in 10 years and a proposal to open Indian casinos far away from reservations.
"I've met with (Brown and Whitman) a couple of times, and they're both great people," said Daniel Tucker, chairman of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, which represents 28 tribes. "We haven't made up our mind. We're still looking. We're still thinking."
Whoever wins that support will receive hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars in contributions. Brown needs the help more than Whitman, whose net worth exceeds $1 billion and who has invested $91 million of her own money in her campaign so far.
At least one of the tribes, the Viejas band, has shown it's prepared to pour game-changing amounts of money into races. It spent $2 million in 2003 supporting the failed gubernatorial campaign of then-Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.
Tucker said his group had not decided whether to throw that kind of support behind any candidate this year.
One tribe-funded group, Californians for Fiscally Responsible Leadership, spent $47,000 this year running radio ads supporting Jeff Denham, who won the Republican nomination for the 19th Congressional District, centered in Modesto, and attacking his opponent, Jim Patterson.
The tribes "are major players," said Cheryl Schmidt, director of nonprofit gambling watchdog group Stand Up for California. "They're right up there with teachers and prison guards and doctors and nurses. They have the financial engine of the casino that allows them to influence politicians."
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