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Campaign 2004: Last minute Navajo visit helped Kerry campaign

TUBA CITY, Ariz. - It's not exactly like the Democratic presidential candidates have been making a beeline toward Indian country in the early primaries.

With the exception of a speech by Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman to the Navajo Nation council last year and a quick trip by Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich to the Tohono O'odham Nation last month, Native American voters haven't seen hide nor hair of those seeking the nation's highest office.

And, that lack of connection with voters was expected to result in wide scale apathy when primary votes were cast Feb. 3 in states with large numbers of Indian voters like Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma.

Johnny Thompson, acting elections director for the Navajo Nation, predicted that less than 10 percent of the tribe's estimated 78,000 Democratic voters in Arizona and New Mexico would turn out to the polls. Thompson said that he had been closely monitoring the Navajos' primary information source, radio station KTNN, and there had been only one prominent endorsement by a tribal leader of a candidate. Thompson also said that public service announcements of voting had been few and far between.

"Half of the people in my area don't have electricity so they don't even see these people on TV or know who they are," said Thomas Walker, a Navajo councilman from the community of Birdsprings. "Besides, they want to see these people, talk to them, feel them. That's the way you get votes here."

So little attention had been paid to the Democratic primary that White Mountain Apache leaders decided to have their vote for four tribal council seats on Feb. 2 instead of Feb. 3.

"We would have normally tried to put them together on the same day but no one seemed to care about what was going on with the Democrats," said Gwendena Realbird, a member of the tribe's election board. "There haven't been any signs put up by the Democratic candidates in this area and I don't gauge any interest in that race."

One prominent person who did pay a visit to the Navajo Nation was Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of Democratic frontrunner Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. Heinz Kerry scheduled a last-minute trip to the western part of the reservation Jan. 31 and met with about 50 supporters, almost all of whom were Navajo elected officials. She then was given a tour of the Tuba City Medical Center.

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The highlight of Heinz Kerry's one-hour speech at the Tuba City chapter house was that her husband would create a new position in the Department of Justice, an assistant attorney general, to prosecute "environmental justice" issues like matters associated with uranium mining on the Navajo Nation.

"It's ridiculous how far behind this country has fallen in relation to identifying Superfund sites and remediating the problems they cause," said Heniz Kerry, a longtime environmental activist.

Surrounded by a wide array of colorful, finely textured Navajo rugs, each with a "John Kerry - The Real Deal" campaign sign attached, Heinz Kerry said she has a lot of sympathy for Native American issues and abuses at the hands of the federal government.

She noted that she could identify first hand with those issues since she was born and raised in Mozambique, where her father was a physician, and that the country had been exploited "by the dictatorship from Europe.

"We saw the last vestiges of mercantilism," Heinz Kerry said. "The farmers in my country would raise cotton and it would be taxed once going out of the country to be milled and then taxed again when it was brought back in. It was a very oppressive environment, not unlike the Native American experience in this area."

Heinz Kerry also said that her husband would pay special attention to "government to government" relationships with the nation's reservations rather than using state governments as a conduit. "John has a particular set of skills in this regard honed by exercising diplomacy for the past 19 years," Heinz Kerry said.

Heinz Kerry also said that she was distressed that gaming seems to be the only form of economic development associated with Native Americans in the United States.

"I hate for people to think that casinos are the only alternative for Native peoples. We want full economic development on the reservations. Why is it that a great scientist, a great mathematician, a great doctor can't come from Indian reservations? We are going to make a concerted effort in that regard," Heinz Kerry said.