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Campaign 2014: Montana Indians Talked, Senator John Walsh Listened

Sen. John Walsh, who is up for re-election in November, recently completed a reservation tour across Montana where he heard tribal concerns.

U.S. Senator John Walsh has recently obtained the endorsement of the Montana Democratic Party for his 2014 re-election run. He also has a string of top backers, including Montana’s governor, Steve Bullock; the state’s senior senator, Jon Tester; and its recently retired senator, Max Baucus. Walsh was the state’s lieutenant governor when Bullock appointed him, in February, to fill the seat Baucus had vacated to become ambassador to China. Walsh has also served as adjutant general of the state’s National Guard, which he led in Iraq.

The son of a pipefitter, Walsh filed for his candidacy in his father’s union hall in Butte, a town with deep historical connections to the labor movement. Walsh’s campaign has included traveling the state, visiting cities, towns and American Indian reservations and, recently, appearing at the Democratic Party’s annual celebratory Mansfield-Metcalf Dinner, in Helena.

During the dinner, the famously flat-topped Senator Tester delivered an address praising Walsh’s positions on the issues and his military brush cut. Walsh, in turn, admitted he’s still getting used to being a senator: “Everyone keeps telling me to smile. But I’ve spent the last 33 years with people telling me, ‘Soldier, wipe that smile off your face!’”

In the short time Walsh has been in the Senate, he has sponsored legislation to protect public lands, introduced a bill to reform government surveillance programs and offered a plan to cut the veteran suicide rate, among other actions. He is seen as likely to face Republican Steve Daines in the November general election. Congressman Daines holds Montana’s sole U.S. House seat and will present his views in an ICTMN interview in the days ahead.

Here’s what Senator Walsh told ICTMN:

Did you hear anything on your recent reservation listening tour that surprised you?

As I visited tribes, I heard a lot of Native veterans complain that they have trouble getting medical care at either Indian Health Service or Veterans Administration facilities. This is very frustrating to me. As a veteran, I want to be sure our veterans are taken care of. One or two Montana tribes are dealing with this problem with memorandums of agreement that coordinate care between the two agencies. It’s a smart practice, it came out of Indian country, and we can take it to other tribes. Those are the types of ideas we should focus on—ones tribes believe will work and that we can help them make work.

Is this an aspect of sovereignty?

We need to respect sovereignty at the state and federal level—to ensure that tribes maintain their sovereignty. But most important, state and federal governments need to support tribes when asked and not push ideas on them from outside.

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Speaking of things from outside, Republican SuperPac American Crossroads has targeted Montana and your Senate seat in a quest for Senate control. The state’s media is awash in ads attacking you. Will it work?

I don’t believe so. People were upset in 2012 at all the money and negative campaigning that came into the state to try and shape the races. Montanans like to get to know candidates and decide how to vote based on that.

How are you dealing with the attacks?

I’ve been going around the state and letting people know how the Republican candidate and I differ, and why. Congressman Daines has cast votes that have been detrimental to Montana, and especially Indian country. He voted for the sequester, the government shutdown and cuts to food stamps—really irresponsible votes. We’re talking about hurting our most vulnerable citizens. I know that government is wasteful and spends too much, but we should take a responsible path toward fixing that, not one with such negative impacts. That’s what I want to get across to voters: When I’m in the U.S. Senate, I won’t put myself and my party above you.

When visiting areas surrounding reservations, I get the sense that some fear stronger tribal economies will mean less, not more, for nearby communities. How do you react to that?

It’s a shortsighted view. I’m disappointed that it’s 2014, and as I travel on reservations, I see they’re lacking businesses, lacking infrastructure. We need to encourage development on reservations, so tribal members can be educated and work at home. Strengthening our tribes will strengthen all our communities and our entire state.

How important is turnout in a mid-term election, when there’s no presidential race to generate extra interest? And would turnout be helped by the reservation satellite-voting access Montana tribes are asking for?

Turnout will be an issue in the upcoming election. I am on the Senate’s Rules Committee and will push to make sure Indian country and all Americans have the ability to vote. Our democracy depends on that and will be strengthened by increasing turnout and voter access. In Indian country and across Montana, which is a very rural state, I’m concerned about people traveling long distances to polling stations. We shouldn’t focus on reducing access to voting, but on making it easier and available to everyone.

Montana Native voters make up a large, solidly Democratic bloc, yet Fort Belknap tribal leader William Main has said they’re largely Kennedy Democrats. Is this a positive for you or, given how long ago John Kennedy was president, a negative?

It’s definitely a positive. Kennedy Democrats are about looking out for each other, lifting each other up. I grew up in Butte, where my dad was a laborer for the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. In our small house, there were three pictures on the wall—Jesus Christ, John Kennedy and [labor leader] George Meany. That’s where my Montana Democratic values come from. That’s what I mean by a Kennedy Democrat.