Governments of American Indian tribes in Minnesota wield a lot of political power. While technically and legally sovereign nations, they also play a role in shaping Minnesota government. The advent of Indian gaming has been a financial boon to many tribes, and an enterprise they want protected for as long as it creates profits.
That’s why when Democrats gather, usually tribal officials are also there to probe potential candidates on their positions first on Indian gaming and then on Indian issues such as health care. They usually don’t bother Repub-licans, because they know where the majority of them stand – as long as Indian casinos are allowed, why not expand gaming to include video gaming in bars? Or creating racinos, joint non-Indian casinos/racetracks?
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, the Democrat seeking DFL endorsement for governor in 2010, found himself under the microscope Wednesday night as he was the keynote speaker at Sen. Mary Olson’s fundraiser at her northeast rural Bemidji home. In the crowd were Leech Lake Tribal Chairman Archie LaRose and Tribal Coun-cilor Eugene “Ribs” Whitebird. Also attending was John McCarthy, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association.
“I want to know how you stand on the Indian gaming issue,” Whitebird asked Rybak when he took questions after making remarks about his gubernatorial bid. “Are you willing to support our tribes, not only Leech Lake, but the other tribes?”
All belong to MIGA, which opposes the expansion of gaming beyond that granted by compact with the state of Minnesota exclusively to the state’s American Indian tribes.
“Will you support us in not letting gambling into the bars?” Whitebird asked.
“I’ve always opposed the expansion of gambling,” Rybak said.
If a bill was passed by the Legislature — which is attempted each session — to allow video gaming in bars, would you veto it? Whitebird pressed. “I oppose any expansion of gambling in this state,” Rybak returned.
And Whitebird took another angle, asking Rybak if he supports public funding for a new Vikings football sta-dium. One way to finance it is through the expansion of gambling. “I’m interested in protecting our gaming inter-ests, and ask the state to leave our gaming alone,” he said.
“I support a Vikings stadium,” Rybak said. “I think the highest priorities we have are health care, schools and transportation. … When you get issues like Viking stadiums often what happens is people will come up will all sorts of cleaver ideas to fund them, and that’s great. I’m going to work n that, too. But if we do that, we should tie together the others. If we can fund a Vikings stadium, we sure as heck can fix our schools, we sure as heck can fix our infrastructure.”
Rybak was asked why state government should help fund a private enterprise, and he put the Vikings stadium into the same pot as the Guthrie Theater and amateur sports arenas around the state – he’d support all of them. But with the Vikings stadium, he said the public should also have a return in the investment, such as a stake in the increased value of the development with the Wilfs. Also, the least expensive way should be looked at, saying that the latest proposal to renovate the Metrodome would save millions of dollars.
“I do believe there are places where we all come together,” he said. “And professional sports a big polluted sys-tem but I do believe there’s a way for us to do it and feel justified,” he said.
User taxes are also viable he said, and added that while he struggled with it, he finally did support the increased sales tax in Hennepin County to help pay for the new Minnesota Twins stadium.
Now would be the best time to provide public dollars for a Vikings stadium, Rybak said, as it would impact the 30 to 40 percent unemployment rate n now in the construction trades — five or six times that of the state average unemployment rate of 7.8 percent.
Whitebird also reiterated that the state’s gaming compact is one of the most unique in the nation in that it calls for the agreement to exist “in perpetuity.” Most Indian gaming compacts with other states include sunset dates in which new agreements must be negotiated. But that Minnesota agreement is also bad news to politicians who want to expand gaming.
“We have one of the better compacts in the whole U.S,.” Whitebird said. “I have other tribes asking me how’s your compact with the state?”
In 2008, the Leech Lake Tribal Council’s political action committee, gave $500 to Tom Bakk’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Bakk is the Cook DFL senator who chairs the Senate Taxes Committee. The Tribal Council also paid $20,000 for lobbyist services at the Minnesota Legislature.
MIGA spent $300,000 in 2008, $340,000 in 2007 and $350,000 in 2006 on lobbyist services, according the state Cam-paign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.
He also told Rybak that support is needed to locate a Minnesota Veterans Home in Bemidji, which is at the cen-ter of three American Indian reservations with high numbers of veterans. Northern Minnesota is underserved, with veterans homes only in Silver Bay and Fergus Falls.
Rybak said he and his wife, Megan, have held lifelong interests in American Indian issues, and as mayor, has been active in working with urban Indian populations.
“One of the things in which we have an opportunity … is that Minnesota should be getting a whole lot more of its share of resources,” he said. “The last two Indian hospitals were located in Arizona and Colorado. Why isn’t Minnesota getting those resources?”
Minnesota hasn’t done enough to address disparities, Rybak said, but also not enough to address opportunity.
“We are in the first time in many, many, many generations where the popular culture in America finally gets it with the Indian way,” he said. “This is nothing that is new to me.”
As a child, he said, with his parent’s drug store at Chicago and Franklin avenues in Minneapolis, “I spent a lot of time looking firsthand at Indian issues. I really made that a good part of my life’s studies. Indian issues are big issues.”
Minnesota needs to hold up the Indian way and the Indian culture “as a key part of what Minnesota is all about,” Rybak said. “This should be a state that says that one of the great things about it is fact that there are incredibly successful tribal communities here, with great needs but great opportunities as well.”