For a Tribe in Texas, an Era of Prosperity Undone by Politics
For a Tribe in Texas, an Era of Prosperity Undone by
Rick Scibelli Jr. for The New York Times
By FOX BUTTERFIELD
Published: June 13, 2005
EL PASO - There are no customers at the Speaking Rock
Casino now. Inside the adobe building, built by the
Tigua Indians to look like a large pueblo-style home,
it is eerily silent and dark, no clinking coins, no
24-hour-a-day bright lights.
Proceeds from gambling helped the Tiguas build a
fitness center, complete with an Olympic-size pool.
The 1,500 slot machines that attracted 100,000
visitors a month to the casino, earning the small
Tigua tribe $60 million a year, are gone, taken away
after the State of Texas won a federal lawsuit three
years ago declaring that the tribe did not have the
right to run a casino here on their ancestral land,
the oldest settlement in Texas.
The Tiguas' efforts to get their casino reopened and
their dealings with Washington insiders promising
access and influence got them caught up in the
spreading investigations involving the lobbyist Jack
Abramoff and Republican political figures, including
the House majority leader, Tom DeLay, and Ralph Reed,
the former director of the Christian Coalition who is
running for lieutenant governor in Georgia.
But here on the dusty east side of El Paso, where the
casino overlooks the Rio Grande and Juárez, Mexico,
this is less a story about machinations in Washington
than about how a tribe lifted itself out of centuries
of poverty into sudden prosperity, complete with good
wages, health insurance and college scholarships for
its 1,300 members, only to see its fortunes plummet.
"In two or three years it will be back to the way it
was before we had gaming," said Arturo Senclair, the
tribal governor. "Then we'll be dependent on whatever
federal money we can get, after we tried so hard to be
All but 82 of the 1,000 casino employees have been
laid off. Those remaining have had their wages cut and
have lost their free medical insurance, 401(k)
retirement plans and paid vacations.
Also gone are the $15,000 annual distributions to each
member of the tribe from casino profits, almost equal
to the median per capita income in El Paso of $17,000.
How the Tiguas got their casino, lost it and have
tried to get it back is a complex tale of gambling and
politics involving newcomers to the political arena
with money to burn and Washington lobbyists seeking
profit. It took several steps and several years for
the Tiguas to open their casino. In 1987 they won
federal recognition as a tribe with their own
reservation, as long as they followed the law of
The next year, Congress passed the Indian Gaming
Regulatory Act, which authorizes tribes to open
casinos on their reservations if their state permits
gambling. In 1991, by constitutional referendum, Texas
voters approved several forms of gambling, including a
state lottery and horse and dog racing.
The Tiguas seized on the referendum as the legal
rationale for opening their casino. In 1993 they tried
to sign a gaming compact with Gov. Ann W. Richards
making clear their legal authority to run the casino.
When she declined, they won a ruling by a federal
district judge ordering Texas to negotiate the
compact, and went into business.
The casino had been open five years when Gov. George
W. Bush campaigned for re-election in 1998. One of his
main themes was his opposition to gambling and, in
particular, to the Tigua casino, which by then was one
of the biggest businesses in El Paso.
"There ought not to be casino gambling in the state of
Texas, any shape or form of it," Governor Bush said
then, taking a stance that put him in line with
Christian conservatives and that he repeated in his
presidential campaign. Mr. Bush said the casino
violated the law, since Texas did not permit casinos.
To the Tiguas, the 1988 law allowing Indians to open
casinos and the 1991 referendum permitting gambling
gave them legal authority.
Profits from the casino made the Tiguas political
players, giving them money to make contributions. In
1998 they gave $100,000 to Mr. Bush's Democratic
opponent, Gary Mauro. It was the logical choice, since
El Paso was the last Democratic stronghold in Texas,
and the Tiguas enjoyed a close relationship with
President Bill Clinton, said Tom Diamond, the tribe's
After his re-election as governor, Mr. Bush got the
Legislature to appropriate $100,000 for the state's
attorney general, John Cornyn, now a Republican
senator, to take legal action against the tribe. Dana
Perino, a White House spokeswoman, said there was no
connection between the Tiguas' campaign contribution
and Mr. Bush's stance.
"The president long supported closing the casino
because it was operating illegally," Ms. Perino said.
"While the voters of Texas had approved a state
lottery, they had not approved casino gambling."
Mr. Cornyn sued in federal court in 1999 and
ultimately won in 2002.