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Campbell, Cole on John McCain

WASHINGTON – Native people have had a standing presence in Washington for only a fraction of the nation’s history, but already the 2008 presidential election is historic on their account – both candidates, for the first time, have elaborated Indian-specific policies and taken note of Native interests.

Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic contender, will have a cohort of Indian-savvy advisers should voters send him to the White House, beginning with former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and well-known Cherokee attorney Keith Harper.

But if Sen. John McCain prevails, the Republican’s long engagement with Indian country will get the further benefit of a word in season straight from Indian country’s own lawmakers – Northern Cheyenne lobbyist Ben Nighthorse Campbell, retired after 22 years in Congress; and Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the only current member of Congress enrolled in a tribe, the Chickasaw.

In separate interviews, each of them repeated the praises, especially on the theme of Indian-specific experience, that even some of McCain’s critics among tribes tend to grant him. “He will know these issues better than any president ever has in my lifetime,” Cole said. “He knows them more than his advisers do. Campbell said that from his experience on Capitol Hill, a world of promise means nothing; a proven track record, everything.

“I have always believed that you can predict future performance pretty well by studying past performance. McCain has 30 years of past performance in helping Indian tribes, everything from settling water rights for Arizona tribes to being the prime sponsor of NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and many other things, too. So that kind of performance tells me you’ve got to have faith.

“This man will do a good job, as good a job as he can, for Indian country.”

They also tried to defuse McCain policy positions on two sore points for Indian country – earmarks and the Supreme Court.

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Campbell, a personal friend of the candidate’s after serving with him as a fellow Republican in the Senate, has been designated an official spokesman of the campaign. Cole, a GOP stalwart who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, in charge of recruiting the party’s candidates and promoting their campaigns nationwide, is glad to speak up for McCain but once cautioned that he’s not speaking for the campaign.

On the subject of earmarks, it was just as well, for he disagreed with him. McCain has railed against the specialized, seldom-debated outlays for in-state constituents throughout his career, and now vows to eliminate them as president. But as public vehemence against so-called pork-barrel spending has grown, Indian organizations headquartered in Washington – the National Congress of American Indians among them – have taken a closer look and found that a surprising number of Indian priorities depend on earmark funding.

The problem is that no one definition of earmarks within the federal appropriations process is acceptable to everyone, Cole said. Though willing to consider reform, and fully agreed that earmarking has been abused over the years, “I’m not for their total elimination.” The Constitution assigns the power of the purse to Congress, and lawmakers have to legislate for their own districts, he explained. Otherwise, congressional funding gets funneled through the federal bureaucracy, the very recipe for inefficiency that fueled the rise of earmarking in the first place.

Campbell spelled out McCain’s thinking. “I’m convinced that whatever is in the budget is the direction he wants to go. I think, really, what he will support are the things that are in the budget when it goes over to the House of Representatives and the Senate. Additional earmarks are not going to get through.

“In the past, education, tribal courts and so forth, law enforcement, health care, self-governance, child and family protection, the environment and water rights, cultural resources – he’s always been there for them when it comes to adequate funding. He has supported appropriations for those laws and programs, and he will continue to do so.”

On the Supreme Court appointments the next president may be called on to make, Campbell said he won’t hesitate to advise his good friend. “I hope to tell you I will. ... But the court, Democrat and Republican appointees – looks to me in the last 25 years like they’ve sided more and more against Indian tribes. So I’m not sure that worry is really valid. We’ve already lost considerable footing. But some of the ones [Supreme Court justices] who have sided most with Indians, like Sandra Day O’Connor, McCain was a huge supporter of hers, helped get her appointed, and she had a great record for Native people.”

Cole said that nobody in the Senate (which must “advise and consent” on presidential nominees to the Supreme Court) ever asks about tribal sovereignty. As president, he noted, “McCain is actually more likely than any other candidate to ask that question ... ‘What is your opinion on tribal sovereignty?’”