Casino Success Transform Tribe

Salem, Oregon — Since its opening in 1995, the Spirit Mountain Casino has meant a better quality of living for the Grand Ronde tribe west of Salem, Oregon.

Casino profits provide universal health care for tribal members, elder housing, pensions, preschool, college scholarships and yearly checks of $4,700 for every member.

Even with casino revenues going to all these benefits, there’s still enough money left to enable the tribe to be a big player in the political circuit.

In the May gubernatorial run, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde employed substantial TV exposure with ads attcking Gov. Ted Kulongoski for supporting a competing casino proposed in the Columbia Gorge and meanwhile promoting Republican Ron Saxton for opposing that casino.

This campaign might just tip the scales in favor of the Republican candidate, more so if this $800,000 dollar move from the casino fund is repeated before the elections. If Saxton wins, it will hand the Republicans the first Oregon Governorship win in twenty years.

Political analysts are quick to pick up that the ball is in the Grand Ronde tribe’s court at the moment. “It’s clear that they are the most powerful interest group on the scene right now,” says James Moore, political scientist at Pacific University in Forest Grove, referring to their influence as an interest group. “They have supplanted labor unions, and they have supplanted the anti-tax crowd. Watching the way they flung money at the TV screen during the primary, I have no doubt that they will continue to be the most powerful interest group in the fall.”

“For us, it’s really business,” says Cheryle Kennedy Grand Ronde’s tribal chairwoman. “It’s regrettable that someone with the stature of the governor would choose to say one thing and do another.” Kennedy refers to the apparent inability of Kulongoski to honor the promise in 2002 to tribal elders to oppose the off-reservation casino in the gorge proposed by the Warm Springs tribe. Kennedy is herself a Democrat.

Political analysts take Grand Ronde’s message more than its face value. They theorize that the tribe is vying to be viewed as a heavyweight in Oregon politics, like other tribes nationwide that have been enriched by casino profits.

Since Oregon tribes cashed in money from casinos in the last ten years, the Grand Ronde tribe has been credited for more than half the state campaign donations by Oregon’s nine tribes, according to the Money in Politics Research Action Project.

“You have to include the Grand Ronde as one of the players now,” says Democratic political consultant Roger Gray.

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