Late Senator John McCain Was Pioneer for Native American Gaming Rights and Prolific Gambler Himself

Posted on: August 28, 2018, 11:58h. 

Last updated on: August 28, 2018, 11:10h.

The late United States Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) was one of the authors of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), the federal legislation signed into law in 1988 by President Ronald Regan that provided Native American tribes the right to operate certain forms of gambling on their sovereign lands.

John McCain gambling Native American casino
John McCain’s legacy will live on through Native American gaming found in 29 states. (Image: Jennifer Stewart/Getty)

On the news of the senator’s passing over the weekend at the age of 81 after battling brain cancer, McCain’s lengthy service in Congress is being revisited. And his positions on tribal casinos are being celebrated by the gaming industry.

“The National Congress of American Indians gives honor to the life of Senator John McCain and celebrates the time we had with him as a tireless champion for Indian Country and tribal sovereignty,” NCAI President Jefferson Keel said in a statement. “The Senator dedicated many years to Indian Country.

“Serving as longtime member and former chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, he met frequently with tribal leaders on the Hill, in their community, and at our gatherings,” Keel continued. “We extend our sincere condolences with the family.”

IGRA Champion

A lifelong Arizonan after moving there following his retirement from the Navy in 1981, McCain worked closely with his state’s tribes, and pushed legislation in Congress to better their sovereignty.

None was more impactful than IGRA, which set a federal regulatory framework granting tribes the right to operate Class I and II games on their reservations. It also mandates that states, not Congress, determines whether Class III games (slots, table games) would be permitted through the formation of gaming compacts.

We must listen more to you, and get out of way of tribal authority,” McCain said during a NCAI conference in 2016.

McCain himself enjoyed gambling, and had a particular fondness for craps. TIME writers Michael Scherer and Michael Weisskopf reported in 2008 that the then-presidential candidate often played “for a few thousand dollars at a time,” but avoided accepting loans or credits from casinos.

Though McCain was an avid supporter of Native American gaming rights, fancied the craps table, and was a boxer in his younger years, the senator had little love for mixed martial arts.

In 1996, he called the UFC “human cockfighting.” In 2015, he said it isn’t a sport but “a throwback to the Roman Colosseum.”

Palin Pick

After securing the Republican Party’s nomination for the 2008 US presidential election, McCain made what might have been his most important decision in his political career.

One day after the Democratic Convention was held in which then-US Senators Barack Obama and Joe Biden became that party’s ticket, McCain announced Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. At the outset, it appeared the gamble paid off, as nominating the first Republican female vice presidential candidate flushed the campaign with more than $7 million in donations over the first 24 hours.

Reaction from the GOP was largely positive, as Palin had strong favorability ratings with both men and women. But she would later become a liability as the media swooned in.

In what became an infamous gaffe, Palin responded to Katie Couric’s question about what newspapers and magazines she reads, “I’ve read most of them.” When pressed for specifics, she answered, “All of them, any of them, that um, have been in front of me over all these years.”