OLYMPIA, Wash. - The senior senator from Washington state, the chairman of the Interior Subcommittee in House Appropriations and a member of the Select Committee for Indian Affairs, Republican Slade Gorton is a powerful political figure.
But he's also just another guy running for re-election this November. Indicators show it's not going to be an easy race.
According to two recent independent polls, Gorton is pulling in the lowest popularity figures ever in his home state. He also faces two strong democratic candidates, Health Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn and former democratic Rep. Maria Cantwell.
Last, but hardly least, Gorton is up against Indian country.
The largest Native American opposition group gearing up for the Washington state senatorial election campaign trail is the First American Education Project (FAEP). Headed by Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam tribe, Billy Frank Jr. of the Nisqually tribe and Joe De La Cruz of the Quinalt tribe, FAEP's current focus is to fund a powerful media campaign informing the public about Gorton's track record and his negative stance on Native American issues such as sovereignty, self-governance and treaty rights.
The group is also making a concerted effort to wake Indian country up to the importance of this key political race.
"U.S. Senator Slade Gorton has been more successful in opposing virtually every issue important to Indians than anyone else in the United State Congress in more than 40 years," Allen says.
"We're canvassing Indian country, making sure they know that they need to make a clear statement. That if a senator or congressman is going to attack Indian country, they need to know there are going to be consequences. We're not going to just sit idly by - even if that person is in a strategic position in Congress and can retaliate if they get reelected.
"Our view is that Sen. Gorton can't do more damage than he's already done. ... In the long run, the money we spend on this campaign is nothing to what we spend to counter his negative efforts in Washington, D.C.."
Tribally owned, funded and managed, the overall mission of this non-profit corporation is to increase public awareness of Native American issues; to bring those issues into the political mainstream; to target major political issues important to Indian country; and to assist tribes across the nation in similar endeavors.
Gorton is vulnerable and what the awareness of the voting public about tribal issues really is.
"Nobody's done polling like that before - at least not that I've seen," says FAEP managing director Russ Lehman. "You have to know where you are ... Any kind of political or public relations or education effort needs to start with that foundation.
"The need right now in this country in the year 2000 is here with Slade Gorton. But it's close in other states too. There are fierce opponents of Indian country that are in Congress or trying to get into Congress in other states, and this program, this model, we are happy to hand over to other tribes in other states to make it work."
Members of the First American Education Project are also working on developing national coordinated political organizations for tribes, not unlike the COPE regional offices developed by the AFL-CIO. These coordinated organizations would share information and decide where tribes should be focusing their energy nationally.
"Tribes don't have a good working process like that yet," comments Lehman. "Many tribes have called us in the last few months and asked for advice for political strategy. They're asking ?Who should we be giving to? What are the big races?'
"That just shows there's great need there to coordinate political activity on the part of the tribes. And once tribes do that, they'll flex muscle that they haven't been able to flex before."
As a non-partisan group with no political affiliation, FAEP is not subject to spending and contribution limits or disclosure requirements. It is not governed by federal election regulations. Monetary contributions from tribes or individuals remain completely anonymous.
Although contributions have been steadily trickling in from Washington state tribes and a few tribes around the nation, the project is far from its goal of $1.5 million to run its pre- primary media campaign. In contrast, Sen. Gorton, who raised $2 million in the last six months of 1999, is heading into his campaign with well more than $1.6 million in his campaign fund.
"The problem that I've seen in raising money for political action is you're up against council members that don't really understand the importance of political action," says FAEP member Henry Cagey of the Lummi nation. "You're up against lawyers and lobbyists who think they have a better way to contribute money. There are a myriad of things that an effort like this has to get through just to get the money through the door."
Tribal perception that Gorton is unbeatable is another obstacle facing fund raising efforts by FAEP. And yet, with his re-elect numbers extremely low for an incumbent - 40 percent - Gorton has never been so vulnerable.
"He's never won by a big margin in this state," Lehman said. "Last time he won by 20,000 votes, and his re-elect numbers at this point in that race were higher than they are today.
"He's very beatable. If he wins, it's because we just didn't work hard enough. And because those who oppose him let him have it without a fight."