Six weeks ago, Governor Fife Symington said he would "embrace whatever the result is" of a referendum drive by Arizona Indian tribes to overturn a bill Symington rammed through the state legislature to ban casino gambling.

Now, as it becomes clear that petition circulators will easily gather enough signatures to keep the law from taking effect and to place the question before voters in 1994, Symington is silent.

But four weeks into the petition drive, Indian leaders spearheading the statewide referendum are ecstatic about the public's reaction. "We cannot overemphasize our pleasure with the kind of support we are getting from across the state," says referendum coordinator Jacob Coin.

With 50,000 signatures already in hand as of April 16, the Committee on Fairness for Economic Development is confident it will surpass the 52,771 valid signatures needed to put the measure on the ballot. The committee, a coalition of Indian and private interests opposed to the casino ban, has until June 3 to collect enough signatures, but expects to have 100,000 signatures long before that date.

"We will make a fairly dramatic announcement around the first of May," Coin, a Hopi, says.

The public's favorable response to the measure is raising hopes among tribal leaders that the Republican-controlled legislature will repeal the law and agree to casino gambling on reservations before the measure goes to the ballot in 1994. "We hope the legislature will correct a very foolish mistake," Coin says.

Even if the Republican leadership wanted to undo the law, it would be difficult without the support of Democrats. And Democrats are in no hurry to repeal the law and deflate the political pressure the referendum is placing on Symington and other Republicans. The only way Democrats will agree to repealing the law is if it is linked to a gambling compact between the tribes and the state.

"We want to be careful to make sure repealing the law is not going to undo the hard work of the petition drive," says Democratic state Senator Chuck Blanchard.

Symington expended tremendous political capital cajoling a reluctant legislature to back the casino ban after a federal mediator decreed that casino gambling on Arizona Indian reservations was legal. Mediator Frank X. Gordon, a former Arizona Supreme Court chief justice, ruled in favor of three Indian tribes seeking to install as many as 2,600 gaming machines and table games, including blackjack and poker.

Symington reacted by calling the legislature into special session and ramming through a law to ban casino gambling statewide while sparing the state lottery and pari-mutuel betting at horse and dog tracks. Indian leaders angrily accused Symington of acting in bad faith and of cutting off further discussions.

"It's unbelievable how he's bungled this whole thing," says Luis Gonzales, a former Democratic state senator from Tucson and now a planner for the Pasqua Yaqui tribe. "We see no reason to negotiate with him."
Symington's office did not return telephone calls from New Times.
The tribes brought on former Democratic state representative John Kromko, a veteran of several successful referendum drives, to help coordinate the effort. Kromko says the petition drive has had resounding impact on tribal members. "This has done a great deal for tribal unity and morale," Kromko, of Tucson, says.

Kromko says many people who are otherwise opposed to casino gambling are signing the petition, because they believe Indians were cheated by Symington and the GOP-controlled legislature.

"I've gotten quite a few calls from Republicans who want petitions, because they are ashamed of what the legislature has done," he says.

This week, the issue shifts to Washington, D.C., where Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has 45 days to review the tribal-gambling proposals approved by Gordon. Babbitt has indicated his support for reservation gambling as prescribed by federal law, which allows tribal gambling if the state has other forms of gambling such as the lottery and horse and dog betting. But Babbitt also has suggested that table games should be prohibited.

If Babbitt, a Democrat, rules in favor of the tribes, he tosses a political hand grenade back to Symington.

In the meantime, Indian tribes are flexing their political muscle by driving a stake deeper into the heart of Symington's 1994 reelection hopes.

"I know if I were him, I certainly wouldn't want to be on the same ballot with the referendum," Gonzales says. Besides collecting signatures, the referendum has also turned into a statewide voter-registration drive, adding thousands of new voters to the rolls. And, again, the news isn't good for Republicans.

"New registrations are three-to-one in favor of Democrats," Kromko says.