LOS ANGELES – As California's lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante (search) earns $130,000 per year, which is not bad, but is nothing compared to what California's Indian tribes bet Bustamante would be worth as governor.
Tribes are wagering Bustamante will win the Oct. 7 recall election and give them what they want: new casinos and more slot machines.
"Cruz Bustamante is the Indian's best friend. If he is elected governor, not only would he approve new casinos, but the expansion of existing ones. It would be great news for the tribes," said Nelson Rose, an Indian gaming expert.
Especially after years of Gov. Gray Davis's refusal to expand Indian gaming in the state, the tribes see Bustamante as a solution to their woes. To paraphrase the lieutenant governor, he asks: Burger joints don't need to ask the government how many burgers should be cooked so why should tribes need state permission to add more slot machines?
Currently, 54 tribes contribute to California's gaming community, earning $6 billion a year. Thirty-four other tribes want gaming rights. If elected to replace Davis, experts say Bustamante could double the money tribes earn by approving more casinos, causing California to surpass Nevada as America's No. 1 gambling state.
"He is the only politician I know of who says the market should decide how many casinos there are, how many slots tribes should have in California," Rose said.
Three Southern California tribes — the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians (search), Pechanga (search) and Sycuan (search) tribes — have contributed $2.8 million to Bustamante's campaign in the past week, just the kind of money that he needs to compete with GOP front-runner Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"That is not a contribution to good government in my book. That's a bet that Bustamante is at least worth that much to their interests. My bet he is worth even more," said Fox News political analyst Susan Estrich.
Collectively, California tribes have spent $120 million on politics since 1998, the most of any special interest.
"They know we can help them, but they also know we can hurt them," said Richard Milanovich, chairman of the Agua Caliente Tribe (search), referring to the state's lawmakers.
Bustamante's tribal money has gained some controversy because the massive amounts of money are being collected in a way that skirts campaign finance law limits. Under the new law, groups are banned from giving more than $21,200 to a single candidate. To get around the law, tribes have donated to Bustamante's 2002 lieutenant governor campaign, exploiting a loophole that experts say is probably legal since lawmakers can use money in previous campaign accounts to pay for later races.
Schwarzenegger jumped on news of the tribes' donations, saying they could compromise Bustamante's judgment if he were elected. California's governor is directly responsible for negotiating billions of dollars in gambling compacts with the state's tribes. Budget hawks say the compacts should be raised to help close the state's $38 billion deficit.
Fox News' William La Jeunesse contributed to this report.