Barrett and the Ho-Chunks

"There are two important things in politics. Money and I can't remember the second thing." -Sen. Mark Hanna (1837-1903)

If Wisconsin voters think Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is the kind of guy who fights on behalf of the poor against the rich, they need to wise up.  The man who carries Democrats' hopes to unseat Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in the June 5 recall election took sides with wealthy Indian tribes who successfully sought to freeze out competition for their casinos.  The poor tribes who wanted a way out of poverty are still poor.  And a business that employed 200 people has shuttered.  Barrett's side won.  That's just the kind of guy union bosses like to deal with, too.

Milwaukee Mayor Thomas M. Barrett, 59, is counting on his Big Union pals and their tantrum-throwing public employee locals, mainly teachers, to roll back the state budgetary reforms of that dastardly Republican governor the people of Wisconsin elected in 2010 and his party's new majority in the Assembly.

What amounts to a childish reaction by public employee unions to Gov. Walker's tax-saving efforts, the recall donnybrook becomes an early shootout between the budget-busting left and budget hawks' vigilance on the right.  Watch out.  It could be a harbinger of things in November.

Big Unions are attempting to remove the barrier between them and grabbing more taxpayers' dollars for members' benefits -- namely, Gov. Walker and the GOP majority.  His predecessor, Gov. James Doyle, was a pushover.  To regain their swagger, unions adopt a take-no-prisoners battle to regain benefits the private sector could only dream of, but could never afford, such as 100%-state-funded pension plans and loaded Lexus-style health plans.  Oh, the "unfairness" of it all!

Viciously, without shame, union devotees portray Wisconsin Gov. Walker as a mustachioed Hitler -- or the devil, you say?  So say hateful union posters.  (Do Wisconsin teachers' unions have no class, no dignity at all?)

Besides union members' dues being pumped into Barrett's campaign, the challenger gets support also from his old allies: indigenous Wisconsin tribes, or at least those rich with "resources" (read: casino dollars) to hand off to candidates they like.  Barrett will swing their way, as Gov. Doyle did, signing long-term sweetheart deals with Badger State tribes.

As a congressman (1993-2003), Rep. Barrett behind the scenes also supported wealthy Wisconsin tribes -- by lobbying a government agency in 1995 against three impoverished Wisconsin tribes seeking a casino of their own in Hudson, Wisconsin, a border town next to Minnesota's populous Twin Cities' market.

Three dirt-poor tribes, bands of the Lake Superior Ojibwe, aligned with a dog track owner to remake his failing track into a casino under provisions of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988.  They followed all the rules.  Then wealthy tribes from Wisconsin and Minnesota, jealous of their shared monopoly with one-armed bandits, ganged up on them and lobbied hard and dirty to block that would-be rival casino at St. Croix Meadows Race Track, just 30 miles from downtown St. Paul, Minnesota.  Theirs was a textbook case in successful lobbying to rub out competition.

Led by the powerful Shakopee (Minnesota) Sioux of Minnesota and the Turtle Lake Band of Ojibwe in western Wisconsin, a consortium of tribal governments, all with existing casinos of their own, hired an army of well-connected lobbyists to deny their poor Indian brethren a casino of their own in Hudson.

Newly affluent Indians got their way when Secretary Bruce Babbitt's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) shot down the poor Indians' petition for a Hudson casino.  They did so by getting to Democrats in Congress, including liberal Congressmen Barrett and firebrand David Obey from Wisconsin, plus Rep. James Oberstar and the late and seemingly saintly Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, among others now retired or also deceased.

Protecting the nouveau riche tribes' de facto casino monopoly was all-important to these limo liberals, and who cares about those impoverished Indians, anyhow?

After shooting down the Hudson deal, donations from the rich, favored tribes in the decision to deny competition poured in to the Democrat National Committee (DNC), headed by Daniel Fowler, and to individual Democrats' campaigns.  It was like manna from heaven.

Something like a half-million dollars arrived at DNC from the consortium of casino-denying tribes that very same year, 1995 -- sort of quid pro quo, with more to come, year after year, to Democrats.  It was, and is today, pay-to-play politics at its lowest form -- tit for tat all over again.

(Secretary Babbitt's role in all this was later the subject of independent counsel Carol Elder Bruce's 1998 investigation, which, predictably, considering its political nature, did not find evidence even to bring charges against him.)

Barrett will get the lion's share of the native Americans' vote.  Democrats  usually do.  But it is the largess in campaign contributions that's the real plum.  Indians today are no slackers at playing politicians' games.  Collectively, team-like, their contributions aim to get their ways with legislators.  They learned the unions' game rapidly, American-style!  

In the 2006 election cycle, history shows that one tribe with three casinos in Wisconsin gave more than $514,000 to federal candidates and to PACs, placing the Ho-Chunk tribe near Wisconsin Dells among the nation's top three tribal "soft money" contributors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.  Later, a large hunk of money came back to help their kemosabe, Gov. Doyle, win the election.  Ah, yea, friends stick together. 

Under federal election rules, tribes can donate directly from their sovereign government accounts to candidates.  Without limit for tribes donating to super PACs.  In short, tribes get a blank check for candidates they like and, same as unions, from whom they expect to get their way.  Everyone knows, as Sen. Mark Hanna did, that money talks in D.C.

In January 1998, then-Congressman Barrett served as a member of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, investigating the '95 Hudson deal at BIA.  Barrett, knowing which side his bread was buttered on, badgered witnesses, including the poor tribes' chairmen and their partner, track-owner Fred Havenick.

Barrett craftily avoided any suggestion that filthy lucre had anything to do with the rejection of the Hudson casino application.  Nah.  That issue was off the table as far as see-no-evil Barrett was concerned -- same as with hear-no-evil Rep. Henry Waxman (D-California).  Both pilloried the poor tribes' leaders and Havenick.  The truth of the matter was far from their field of vision.

Barrett himself admitting writing a letter to Secretary Babbitt, lobbying the BIA, a government agency, on behalf of his state's wealthy tribes with casinos.  Barrett insisted that the Hudson casino plan for the poor Indians be scrapped.  He held dearly to the mantra, a cover used by others, that a casino there would "expand gambling" at this parimutuel track, where gambling was already a daily thing.  It remains an artful dodge.

Later, affirming his friendship with the influential Ho-Chunk tribe in Wisconsin, Congressman Barrett sent them a letter, too.  Flat-out, unabashedly, he told them the reason he objected to a casino at the dog track: it might affect Ho-Chunk's casino profits.  Simple as that.  Talk about protecting a moneyed special interest.  Barrett did it in spades.

In hearings telecast on C-SPAN (where this author picked them up in '98), track owner Fred Havenick took center stage.  He charged that the BIA's decision on Hudson was strictly political, stirred by big-money donations to DNC, and unprecedented at that.

That led to this exchange as found in the House hearing transcript for Jan. 21, 1998 (1):

Mr. Barrett: [B]ut [wait!] ... the [Nebraska] tribe, in partnership with Harvey's Resort Hotel & Casino, would purchase certain properties on [sic] Council Bluffs, Iowa, and requested that property be placed in trust for the [Nebraska] tribes.

Mr. Havenick: First of all ... they crossed state lines.  But in addition, there was no recommendation from the regional [BIA] office ... approving the project. [Note: BIA regional offices in both Minneapolis and Ashland, WI had both approved the Hudson casino prior to the matter going to BIA in D.C.]

Mr. Barrett: I think there was...

Mr.Havenick: But that was across state lines...

Mr. Barrett: As was the one here [in Hudson].  You had objected to the Minnesota tribes -- [interrupted]

Mr.Havenick: No, no!  This was Wisconsin tribes applying in Hudson.  The tribes were not brought in from another state; they were indigenous Wisconsin tribes.

Mr. Barrett: So there is a difference, but again, I am saying this [rejection at BIA of the Hudson casino] was not totally [emphasis supplied] unprecedented...

Havenick later testifies that wealthy tribes in Minnesota and Wisconsin contributed money to the DNC ("about a half million dollars") in the wake of denial of Hudson by Secretary Babbitt's BIA on the order of the White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes, Jr.  The congressman from Wisconsin then asked the witness:

Mr. Barrett: Why do you think the tribes opposed to the [Hudson] casino contributed to the DNC?  That is the whole reason we are here today.

Mr. Havenick: Because the tribes wanted to protect their monopoly.

Mr. Barrett: So they were doing something nefarious?

Mr. Havenick: Yes.

Rather than follow up on Havenick's blistering accusation, Barrett moves quickly to another line of unrelated questioning.  Of all angles, he attacks the destitute tribes for hiring a lawyer-lobbyist of their own to go up against the army of lobbyists of the 17 casino-rich tribes.  The poor tribes had hired Paul J. Eckstein, Babbitt's friend and former law partner in Phoenix and his classmate at Harvard Law School.

Mr. Barrett [sarcastically]: "When you hired Mr. Eckstein, I bet you were one happy guy. Did he tell you what kind of access he had to Secretary Babbitt?

Mr. Havenick: I wasn't one happy guy, OK?  We were one very unhappy people because we felt that what was being done to us was that tribes ... aligned against us ... were making enormous amounts of money every day this project was delayed, so we felt that what they were trying to do was, since you couldn't kill it [Hudson casino] on the merits, they [BIA] were just never going to give us a decision.

Mr. Barrett: But then you hired Mr. Eckstein because he was a man who had special access to the secretary [Babbitt].

Mr. Havenick: We felt Mr. Eckstein could get this project back on track.

Never did the Hudson project get back on track.  It was done in by bloody politics; BIA's denial killed the poor tribes' bid for a shot at the golden ring at the Hudson dog track.

Secretary Babbitt, once a potential nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, infamously told his old friend Paul Eckstein that White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes, Jr. had ordered the BIA's casino denial on July 14, 1995.  While Babbitt could recall that part of the conversation with Eckstein, Babbitt had memory lapses, endemic in Washington, D.C., about telling his old friend (now former friend) Eckstein that "those Indians" had given "their party," or words to that effect, "a half-million dollars" (2).

(Epilogue: Secretary Babbitt, "exonerated" in the independent counsel's investigation for "lack of evidence," retired to private law practice, dropping out of public life.  Years later, largely unreported, the Hudson dog track proposal at BIA was overturned by a court-approved order.  It came too late.  The track closed in August 2001 with a loss of 200 jobs.  Track-owner Fred Havenick died of a heart condition in June 2004. 

What about the Indians seeking a casino to lift their members out of abject poverty?  Still impoverished, they suffer high unemployment on their reservations and sky-high school drop-out rates.  Meanwhile, their wealthy brethren, protecting cash-cow casino monopolies in Wisconsin and Minnesota, may issue cash stipends to each full tribal member out of millions annually in casino profits.  Like Big Labor, casino-rich tribal leaders continue to contribute mightily and openly from their sovereign nations' cash registers to politicians who will do their bidding.  What a country, huh?)

Larson is a retired newspaper and magazine editor in Minnesota.  He writes extensively on Indian casinos.  He is a regular columnist at American Thinker.

(1) Dept. of the Interior's Denial of the Wisconsin Chippewas' Casino Application, Volume I, Hearings before the Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, House of Representatives, Jan. 21, 22, 28 and 29, 1998, Serial No. 105-92, Government Printing Office.

(2) For a detailed article on denial of the would-be Hudson, Wisconsin, casino in 1995, refer to the author's 2005 article at Intellectual Conservative:

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