Oklahoma Tribes Back Democratic Challenger for Gov. After Casino Payments Spat

Posted on: October 12, 2022, 01:38h. 

Last updated on: October 13, 2022, 05:57h.

Oklahoma’s five largest tribes are officially backing Democratic challenger Joy Hofmeister in the state’s Nov. 8 gubernatorial election. That’s despite the incumbent governor’s status as the land’s first and only Native American governor.

Joy Hofmeister
Former Republican Joy Hofmeister, above, switched sides to run for Oklahoma governor. The tribes praised her stance on sovereignty issues this Tuesday. (Image: Sue Ogrocki/AP)

Gov. Kevin Stitt may be a full-fledged citizen of the Cherokee Nation, but his relationship with the tribes has been acrimonious during his tenure. Failed attempts to squeeze larger casino payments out of the tribes could ultimately prove to be a political misstep.

Leaders of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Muscogee, Choctaw, and Seminole Nations announced their endorsement of Hofmeister during a press conference at the Petroleum Club Event Center in Oklahoma City Tuesday. The five tribes represent more than 800,000 citizens in a state of just under four million people.

Veiled Dig

Their support for Hofmeister is not unexpected. The former Republican, who switched sides to run for governor, received 30 donations from tribal governments, tribal government officials, and casino-gaming officials in Q4 2021, according to the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.

With a veiled dig at Stitt, tribal leaders said they were backing Hofmeister because she understood “our sovereignty is not a partisan issue or a threat, but instead is a chance to forge new partnerships while strengthening those that already exist because Oklahomans thrive together when we all work together.”

Friction arose between Stitt and the tribes in 2019 when the governor demanded the renegotiation of tribal compacts signed in 2004. These agreements between tribes and states define tribal gaming rights and revenue-share payments.

Oklahoma’s Native American gaming market is second only to California’s in terms of revenue, despite hosting more gaming facilities — 130 — operated by 33 tribal nations. These range from modest electronic bingo halls to resort-style mega-casinos.

Courts Sided with Tribes

Stitt wanted more money from tribal casinos and was prepared to dangle sports betting as an incentive. The governor argued that the 2004 compacts expired on Jan. 1. 2020, and operators who continued to offer slots and table gaming after that deadline were doing so illegally. He threatened to introduce commercial gaming to the state if the tribes refused to play ball.

The tribes argued the compacts were intended to roll over on that date and that negotiations were unnecessary.

The squabble was settled in October 2020 when a federal judge sided with the tribes. The court also nullified compacts Stitt had negotiated with a handful of breakaway tribes.

The judge ruled he had overstepped his authority by offering the tribes sports betting rights. That’s because the legislature and a public referendum can only authorize sports betting.