INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — An Indiana congressman who has made repeated calls to "drain the swamp" in Washington collected more than $160,000 in campaign contributions from gambling interest groups that stand to benefit from legislation he is sponsoring, an Associated Press review found.
Republican Rep. Todd Rokita's collection of such contributions has surged since 2015, when he first sponsored legislation that would end employee protections for tribal casino workers under the National Labor Relations Act. While not illegal, Rokita's acceptance of the donations gives the appearance of the pay-to-play Washington politics that he has frequently inveighed against during his Indiana GOP Senate primary campaign.
The measure, dubbed the Tribal Sovereignty Act, was previously approved by the House but did not advance through the Senate. On Wednesday, the House included it in a larger bill that passed on a 239-173 vote.
Rokita is seeking to challenge Democratic Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly, and has repeatedly attacked him and Rokita's chief GOP primary rival, fellow Rep. Luke Messer, as elite insiders who have stacked the deck against ordinary people for their own benefit.
"Lobbyists, bureaucrats, politicians and the media. They've rigged the system. They look out for themselves and look down on us," a narrator ominously intones in one of his campaign ads.
Rokita staffers say he's helping Native American workers stand up against union bosses and that he has a long history of supporting legislation to benefit Native Americans.
Rokita does not have any recognized Native American tribes within his western Indiana district and collected scant contributions from tribal gambling interests before sponsorship of the Tribal Sovereignty Act in 2015. But since then, he has received at least $163,250 from roughly two dozen tribes or tribal gambling affiliated groups, according AP analysis of FEC data. About $8,100 of that comes from a Michigan tribe with a presence in northern Indiana.
In 2017, he was the top recipient of tribal gambling dollars in the House, according to Federal Election Commission data reviewed by the website OpenSecrets.org.
Purdue University political science professor James A. McCann has studied perceptions of political corruption among the electorate and says that research shows marginalized people often view "deal making and special interest politics" like the kind Rokita engaged in as "corrupt." Rokita is counting on that demographic, including those who embraced President Donald Trump's anti-establishment message, to also support his campaign.
"People who are maybe having to work two jobs, or are lower on the economic totem pole, tend to see everyday politics as more corrupt," said McCann. "If Todd Rokita is seeking to differentiate himself based on sticking up for the little guy, or draining the swamp, that undercuts his messaging."
Rokita has promoted the legislation as an anti-union law, though its effect is far broader.
"Native Americans in Indiana and elsewhere, support Todd because they know he fights for them including taking on union bosses hell-bent on exploiting poor Native American workers who historically haven't had a voice before Congress," Rokita's chief of staff Mark Cruz said in a statement.
Cruz, a member of the Klamath Tribes, contrasted that with Rokita's campaign opponents, who "take orders from union bosses and Wall Street bankers."
Tribes are generally treated as sovereign nations. But in 2004 the National Labor Relations Board ruled that employees at tribal businesses that are operated primarily for commercial purposes, like casinos, are subject to the National Labor Relations Act.
The ruling allowed employees to unionize regardless of tribal law and file unfair labor practice complaints with the NRLB, among other worker protections, according to policy documents.
Rokita's legislation, if signed into law, would exempt all tribal businesses from the NLRA.
Jefferson Keel, lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation, testified in favor of the bill, saying the law, as is, "is incompatible with the very nature of sovereignty and self-government."
The Chickasaw Nation since 2015 has donated $15,600 to Rokita, as well as a leadership PAC he runs called The Fund for American Exceptionalism.
Rodney Butler, of the Mashantucket Pequot Nation, similarly criticized the current law for suggesting "that Indian tribes are incapable of developing laws and institutions to protect the rights of employees who work on our reservations." His tribe has donated $8,100 to Rokita.