Skip to main content

An Indian country election scorecard

  • Author:
  • Updated:

Indians have a lot to watch for in the 2002 mid-term elections, even in the absence of high-intensity campaigns like the drive against U. S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., in 2000 and the two California Indian gaming propositions.

Turnout will be a crucial question in South Dakota, where the alleged misdeeds of two voter drive workers suddenly became a massive voter fraud scandal because, it now appears, of the publicity efforts of a Republican operative. Democratic leaders now charge that the furor was an attempt to discourage voting by the large number of newly enrolled Indians. At stake is the neck-and-neck South Dakota Senate seat and ultimately control of the U. S. Senate.

But a number of other races bear watching. Indian candidates are hoping for gains in Congress and statewide office. Initiatives in Arizona and Idaho could open new opportunities for tribal casinos. And not least in interest, close races are threatening the seats of some politicians who have been overtly hostile to Indian interests.

Here are some races and faces to watch:

Indian Candidates

Ron Volesky, for South Dakota Attorney General

After coming up short in a campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor, Volesky, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, received the party nod for state attorney general. Leaders of some Sioux tribes call the incumbent Republican Attorney General Mark Burnett an "Indian fighter" for his legal challenges to tribal sovereignty.

Derrick Watchman for U. S House of Representatives, Arizona District 1

Son of a rancher and rodeo contestant, Watchman, a Navajo resident of Window Rock, is Democratic candidate for the new House seat covering Navajo land in northeast Arizona. He combines his rural roots with a Master's in Business Administration from the University of California at Berkeley. The seat is open but hotly contested.

Sharon Clahchischilliage, for New Mexico Secretary of State

A Navajo from Farmington and an outspoken Republican, Sharon, as she prefers to be called, is campaigning against the Democratic incumbent under the slogan "Fighting for Honest Elections." She likes to say that Democrats have controlled the election process in New Mexico since 1912, "longer than the Communist Party controlled Russia!" Her supporters say she has drawn within two percentage points of the incumbent.

Honorable Mention in Oklahoma

Although State Senator Kelly Haney, Seminole/Creek, finished third in the Democatic primary for Governor in August, the professional sculptor has left his mark on state government. After winning a blind competition, he produced the dramatic statue of a Native warrior, "The Defender", that was installed on top of the Capitol dome this summer.

The Propositions


Three separate propositions would expand Indian gaming under terms benefiting three different constituencies.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Proposition 200 sponsored by the Colorado River Indian Tribes would favor more remote locations.

Proposition 201 sponsored by the Arizona Racetrack Alliance would promote "racinos," placing slots in tracks as well as Indian casinos.

Proposition 202, a compromise negotiated by 17 tribes through the Arizona Indian Gaming Association, comes closest to continuing the compact agreement with the state government that died in the legislature this summer.

According to a recent poll, Prop 202 has the greatest support, but still falls short of 50 percent, and all three might fail.


Proposition 1 would legalize electronic gaming machines for tribal casinos but limit their growth over the next 10 years. Nez Perce, Coeur d'Alene and Kootenai tribes have raised nearly $3.6 million to support the measure, in the most expensive proposition campaign in state history. Officials are expecting it to win handily.

The cliff-hangers

Control of the Senate might rest on a number of razor-thin contests. Here are some involving controversial figures in Indian issues.

South Dakota: U. S. Senator Tim Johnson, Democrat, faces U. S. Rep. John Thune, Republican. The "Massive voting fraud scandal" on Indian reservations has already taken several unpredictable bounces. At first an embarrassment to the Democratic registration effort when national media got in a furor, it could conceivably backfire on Republicans who it turns out were in an uproar over less than 400 questionable ballot applications. Calls for federal monitors from Republican Party officials might remind some that Republican state officials are defendants in the nation's largest voting rights suit. The question is whether new Indian voters will be intimidated or enraged.

Texas: After closing down two tribal casinos, Republican state Attorney General John Cornyn is trying to step up to the Senate. But he's run into a surprisingly tight race with Democrat Ron Kirk, the black former mayor of Dallas. The race is splitting on ethnic lines, with the rising Hispanic vote giving Kirk his boost. But the Tigua tribe, which lost its Class III casino this February after Cornyn took it to court, is sending almost all of its campaign donations to the National Republican Party.

Missouri: Democratic U. S. Sen. Jean Carnahan is one of this year's most threatened incumbents. Coincidentally, perhaps, she was one of 15 senators to vote for the infamous Dodd amendment to freeze tribal recognitions.

Georgia: The same is true of U. S. Sen. Max Cleland.

Other races

Connecticut: U. S. Senators Christopher Dodd and Joseph I. Lieberman, both Democrats, have been drawn into the anti-casino, anti-recognition movement but neither is up for re-election this year. The undisputed leader of the movement, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, a liberal Democrat, is on the ballot but apparently well ahead. The moderate Republican governor John Rowland is also leading comfortably but felt enough pressure to break his neutral stand on casinos and say that he didn't want more in the state.

Although the politicians in the 2nd Congressional District, which includes both the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot casinos, squeezed out the militant anti-casino author Jeff Benedict, the incumbent Republican U. S. Rep. Rob Simmons and his Democratic challenger Joseph Courtney spent the last weeks of the campaign debating who was the closer "twin" to Blumenthal.

Maine: The one candidate in the four-way race for governor who is considered friendliest to the tribes, Democratic U. S. Rep. John Baldacci, ran into a double-whammy of ethnic stereotyping along the way. A television ad placed by the Green Independent candidate mocked Baldacci's changing position on tribal casinos in accents drawn from "The Sopranos." "If he flipped he can flop, bada-bing bada-boom, knowwhadahmean?" As the charge of "accentism" rallied the French as well as Italians, Baldacci appeared to maintain a solid lead. Although he now opposes Indian casinos, tribal leaders see him as much more sympathetic than the current incumbent to their struggle for tribal sovereignty.