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Catching up with Ben Nighthorse Campbell

Part one

U. S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, retired, comes back from Colorado to Washington every three weeks or so, timing his visits so that he can have lunch on Capitol Hill and catch up with friends and colleagues from his long career in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Indian Country Today caught up with him in the offices of the Holland & Knight law firm and lobbying shop, where he serves as a senior policy adviser.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell: If there's votes on the floor [of the Senate], I'll go down - because we [retired senators] retain privileges, which means we can go down to the floor, go to the caucuses, anything. And it's fun, visiting with members on the floor. It's hugs and handshakes, and 'How you been? How do you look so tanned?' 'Well, part of it's in my blood, but part of it's being out of this place!'

Indian Country Today: And nobody leaning on you hard for favors I suppose?

Campbell: No, not at all. I had three of them tell me they wished they left when I left because they're so angry over there now. And of course a lot of 'Hey, can you raise some money for us?,' that stuff you know. ... I tell them first of all that the law firm prefers I don't get into partisan politics, and I don't want to. ... But also too you know, I very simply look at - I don't care about parties, I look at who our friends were and who our enemies were. Not enemies, but who was helping us and who was not? ... You want tribal help, you'd better be willing to help tribes. It's as simple as that. It's human nature. Has nothing to do with Indians. Has to do with human nature.

So we, us old guys I call us, retired, we get calls from all over. And actually, the firm is very active too, and I turned in a list, a bipartisan list, of the Republicans I thought were very, very helpful in Indian country, and Democrats who have been very helpful in Indian country. They're [Holland & Knight] doing fund raisers for all of them. You need friends on both sides of the aisle. And I think too you know, and I tell them literally every place I give talks on Indians now, I think in one respect Indians can claim victory on the control of the United States Senate. Because it worked like this [in the 2006 mid-term elections last November]: they were down to the wire. The last senator whose votes were counted was Jon Tester of Montana. They had the numbers up there and they know it was Indians put him over the top. And Jon told me that too, he knows it too, Indian people got him elected. Well, when you have the leadership and all the committee chairmanships and all the stuff change because one senator got elected [putting Democrats in the majority] - if Jon had not won that race, wouldn't have had a new president of the Senate, wouldn't have had a new chairman of the different committees and all that, right? So in a sense Indians can say that we got that man elected and he's the one that tipped the scales, so we won the Senate.

ICT: You just wouldn't be having these hearings, a lot of these hearings, if the Republicans were still in the majority?

Campbell: Well, Byron Dorgan [D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs] has said publicly and to Indian country that his big concern this year is not going to be gaming; it's going to be Indian health care reauthorization.

ICT: That's a huge change.

Campbell: It's a huge bill too. The thing's been languishing there I think like fourteen years or something, when the average time for reauthorization is three to five years. And there have been so many breakthroughs for medical science the last say dozen years, that everyone gets to take advantage of in the country except Indians, because that bill hasn't been reauthorized. It's really overdue.

ICT: Well now you fought long and hard for that in your time -

Campbell: But I couldn't get the administration to help. ... I introduced it three times, if I'm not mistaken, two or three times. And Tommy Thompson was the Secretary [of the Department of Health and Human Services] then. He would come over to committee, when we did the come-over [invitation] to have the administration testify, and he would tell us it's a fine bill, we think it's due ... however. It was always 'however, we can't support it yet until you make this, tweak this, make this little change or - paragraph so-and-so. We'd make the change, have them come back over, he'd say 'Oh, it's a better bill, you know, it's nice, but well, this is' -

ICT: Another however?

Campbell: So what they did is - it was really ridiculous. They ran out the time on us so to speak, until we couldn't get the thing passed. After I got out [of Congress] I began to realize, they don't want the darn bill. They didn't want to help with the bill. But maybe with this new leadership, they're going to have to have some chips on the table, there's going to have to be some trading back and forth, and if the Dems make this a real priority, they'll get the administration to come along. They wouldn't do it for me.

ICT: Well they got it out [of the Indian jurisdiction committees] in plenty of time this time though, didn't they?

Campbell: That's the other thing too. What happened to us is, it kept getting closer to the end of the session, until it was just - ran out of time. So they do have more time now. So I feel positive about it this year.

Continued in part two