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October 2012, Week 2

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Why the Native American Vote Could Win the Senate 
for Democrats
David Sarasohn
This article appeared in the October 22, 2012 
edition of The Nation
October 2, 2012
http://www.thenation.com/article/170336/why-native-american-vote-could-win-senate-democrats

High up in the nosebleed section of the Democratic
National Convention, where the North Dakota delegation
sat-the party had no great electoral expectations from
that state-Phyllis Howard explained her Mandan-Hidatsa
tribe's political priorities. "I think Native Americans
are forgotten dual citizens," she said. "I think state
people forget."

So her face lit up at the mention of Heidi Heitkamp,
North Dakota's Democratic Senate candidate. The federal
government, Howard pointed out, pays for the tribal
justice and health systems and for tribal colleges, and
Heitkamp, a former state attorney general who's spent a
fair part of the summer campaigning at reservations and
powwows, "knows a lot of tribal people." That's central
to electoral hopes both in Howard's western North Dakota
home of New Town-created when the Mandan-Hidatsa were
forcibly relocated in the 1950s for the construction of
the Garrison Dam-and in Democratic campaign offices in
Washington.

Native American voters, a small percentage of the
population in the Western states, are unlikely to have
much effect on either the House of Representatives or
the Electoral College. But this year, with a tightly
divided Senate hanging in the balance, four closely
contested races-North Dakota, Montana, Arizona and New
Mexico-are in states with enough tribal population to
have an impact, from 5.2 percent in Arizona to 10.1
percent in New Mexico. Three of the four are outside the
Obama campaign's electoral vote hopes, but all are vital
to Democratic chances of holding the Senate.

"In all of those four states, we have great tribal
operations," said Jacqueline Johnson, executive director
of the nonpartisan National Congress of American
Indians, the largest tribal political organization. This
year the NCAI is running its largest-ever registration
and voter outreach effort, which culminated in a Native
Vote Action Week beginning September 24 that featured
110 tribes, more than 135 events and more than 35,000
participants. "Where elections are tighter," she said,
"the voice of Indian Country has a better chance of
participating in the debate."

Tribal political influence is not hypothetical. "The
last time he ran, the Native vote was the swing vote
that put [Senator] Jon Tester in his seat," pointed out
Montana State Senator Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, a Crow.
Now Tester's counting on that vote to keep him there.
He's not the only politician who's benefited from the
Indian vote. In Alaska, which has the country's highest
Native American concentration (14.9 percent), Indian
voting was considered crucial in GOP Senator Lisa
Murkowski's upset write-in re-election in 2010 after she
lost the primary. And Janet Napolitano, now homeland
security secretary, was trailing in the race for Arizona
governor in 2002 until the Navajo vote came in.

"It's a crucial constituency in New Mexico," said
Representative Martin Heinrich, that state's Democratic
nominee for Senate, who during both the primary and
general election campaign has focused closely on New
Mexico's tribes and pueblos. "I've been a big supporter
of making sure the Democratic Party in the state has a
tribal plan and a tribal organization." Heinrich, who
has worked on tribal housing issues in the House, added
that each Native group has its own issues: "It's not a
one-size-fits-all group."

As Andy Barr, communications director for Arizona
Democratic candidate Richard Carmona, points out,
there's a range of issues among Navajo, Hopi and Apache
voters. Casino tribes have an interest in gaming, others
in energy issues, but everyone cares about water, which
is vital to tribes across the West. Energy is also
paramount; the massive oil boom in North Dakota is
largely on Mandan-Hidatsa land, while Montana Blackfoot
are concerned about the environmental impact of natural
gas fracking. And anybody campaigning on the
reservations needs to understand the intricate issues of
tribal sovereignty: how Native Americans are legally
citizens of both their own nations and the United
States.

A major issue sweeping across Indian Country this year
is the prospect of a sharp reduction in federal
spending, reflected in budgets pushed through the House
by GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan; passage
becomes much likelier if Republicans regain control of
the Senate. The tribes may be the most federally
dependent people in the country: most reservations have
minimal private employment, and public education and
health agencies provide many of the jobs that do exist.
The idea of sharp cuts to the Bureau of Indian Affairs
is unnerving.

The rest of the country is in an uproar over 8 percent
unemployment, noted Stewart-Peregoy, but "for tribes, it
would be great if we had 8 percent unemployment. We're
talking double digits, from 20 percent unemployment to
70, 80 percent." Federal support is also vital for
tribal colleges and for the Indian Health Service, which
after years of battling budget problems was actually
strengthened by Obama's healthcare reform.

This year there's another very specific tribal issue at
stake, noted Senator Patty Murray, who as chair of the
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is closely
watching the four campaigns. The Senate passed a renewal
of the Violence Against Women Act that expands
protection for tribal women abused by nontribal members,
a situation that often falls into the gap between law
enforcement on and off reservations. The House has
refused to take up the bill. "This has been a silent
epidemic across the country," said Murray. "Tribes have
really rallied over this. It's been a personal issue
with me. I have championed this in the Senate. I have
had so many Native American women come up to me and say,
`Thank you for bringing this up.'"

The Senate is particularly vital for tribal interests,
because the Senate Indian Affairs Committee is the focus
of congressional tribal policy. "The most important
thing to the tribes in North Dakota," said Diane
Johnson, Native American director for the Heitkamp
campaign, "is that their senators sit on the Indian
Affairs Committee." North Dakota, like Hawaii, has both
of its senators on Indian Affairs, and all four states
are represented on it. "It is so important," said
Jacqueline Johnson of the NCAI. "That is how things get
done."

The current chair of the committee, Daniel Akaka, is
retiring this year, as is Kent Conrad, whose seat
Heitkamp is running to fill. If the Democrats hold the
Senate, the likely new Indian Affairs chair would be
Maria Cantwell of Washington, elected in 2000 in what
might have been the first dramatic display of Native
influence. Cantwell defeated incumbent Republican Slade
Gorton by 2,229 votes out of 2.5 million cast with
strong support from Native Americans, who had opposed
Gorton since his efforts against tribal fishing rights
as state attorney general. "She listens to our tribes,"
said Johnson of Cantwell. "The tribes in the Northwest
are pleased with her representation."

In a battle for Senate control likely to be decided by a
few seats, the elections in North Dakota, Montana,
Arizona and New Mexico could prove decisive. Heinrich
has built a small lead in New Mexico; Carmona is
considered trailing but within range in Arizona; Tester
is in a dead heat in Montana; and Heitkamp has surprised
observers by running neck-and-neck for a seat that
Democrats had largely conceded in North Dakota. And the
campaigns, against three hard-line conservative
Republican House members and one former House member,
are about the basic nature of the federal government's
responsibilities, an issue in which the tribes have a
particular stake. "If you look at the [Ryan] proposals
in terms of budget cuts, tribes will be hurting," said
Stewart-Peregoy. "The poorest will get poorer."

So Democratic candidates are running hard in Indian
Country, naming tribal liaisons and campaigning on
reservations. In Montana, American Indians for Tester,
one of the campaign's major volunteer groups, is co-
chaired by Ryan Rusche, a Fort Peck Assiniboine, and Amy
Stiffarm, an Aaniih from the Fort Belknap reservation.
The New Mexico Obama campaign has a full-time Native
vote director. And in Arizona, the Carmona campaign is
launching a radio effort directed at tribal voters.

The stakes are equally high on the Native side. "It's
important that the tribal voice is at the table," said
the NCAI's Johnson. At a recent campaign rally in
Massachusetts-a part of the country where tribes were
long ago marginalized, if not exterminated-staffers for
Senator Scott Brown mocked his Democratic challenger,
Elizabeth Warren (who claims some tribal ancestry), with
war whoops and tomahawk chops. In four states far to the
west, however, after centuries of forced resettlement
and grinding poverty, tribal voters could become not the
butt of a joke, but the force that decides who controls
the Senate.

___________________________________________

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