WASHINGTON - After 12 years in the Senate and almost twice that many in politics, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell announced March 3 that he will not seek re-election this year.
The Colorado Republican gave the effect of stress on his health as the reason for his decision. At 70, he also said it was time to get back to his family and his Colorado ranch.
Campbell underwent treatment for prostate cancer last winter, treatment he described as not strictly necessary. He looked healthy and said he felt fine afterward, adding that his doctors had given him a good prognosis for a full recovery. His statements largely dispelled the speculation in Washington all last year that he would not run for re-election.
On the evening of Feb. 25, at a reception that started off a Republican forum for Native leaders, Campbell gave a spirited speech in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress. The next morning, he did not make a scheduled appearance at the forum proper; it turned out that he had checked into a hospital with chest pains. He checked out again with a clean bill of health, but had spent another night in the hospital before the March 3 announcement.
Campbell's office has been the subject of a Senate ethics probe in recent weeks over the conduct of a former staff member. So far the investigation has not implicated Campbell himself for any direct misconduct.
Campbell began his political life as a Democrat but went over to the Republican side of the aisle in 1995, a move ascribed to mainly state-level politics. In any case it threw the closely divided Senate into a whirl of calculation as to which party would hold the majority in the 1996 elections.
The same calculations are under way now, as the Senate remains closely divided between 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats, and one Democrat-leaning Independent. Majority status confers the all-important chairmanship on committees' ranking majority-party members. Colorado Gov. Bill Owen, an anti-tax Republican with connections to President George W. Bush that go back to the Texas oilfields, has been mentioned as a Republican candidate for Campbell's seat. Among Democrats, congressional Reps. Diana DeGette and Mark Udall have been mentioned as leading contenders.
Of particular note for Indian country, Campbell's decision means there may not be an Indian in the Senate next term. Campbell, Northern Cheyenne, is the only Indian in the current Senate and one of only a handful to ever serve there. He has been a reliable champion on virtually every Native issue of note. Most recently, he oversaw the passage of a probate reform bill through an initial "mark-up" meeting of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which he chairs.
Under Senate rules, Campbell had been scheduled to rotate off the SCIA chair at the end of the 2004 session. John McCain, R-Ariz., is in line to inherit the chair if the Republicans retain a Senate majority after the 2004 elections. If the Democrats pick up an extra seat or two (depending on who wins the presidency), Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, is the senior senator in line for the chair.
Editor's note: A speech by Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii reported on in (Vol. 23 Iss. 38) erroneously implied that Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, might yield his seniority on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to another chairman or vice chairman.