SENECA FALLS, N.Y. - Locked in a neck-and-neck U.S. Senate race with First Lady Hillary Clinton, Republican candidate Rick Lazio is trying to gain support by playing on anti-Indian fears.
He is running a radio campaign commercial in upstate markets denouncing the "Clinton administration's Justice Department" for suing New York homeowners in Indian land claims cases.
"Homes, farms and businesses are all threatened," says the ad. "Native Americans have rights, but so do property-owning New Yorkers. This Clinton lawsuit against our homeowners is extreme and wrong."
Lazio, a congressman from Long Island, appears to be running in a statistical dead-heat with Clinton, recent polls show.
In an angry response, Oneida Indian Nation spokesman Mark Emery called the ad, "inaccurate, misleading and out-of-date." He said the federal judge hearing the Oneida land claim had dismissed the homeowner defendants from the suit a month earlier.
"This kind of inflammatory rhetoric fans the flame of hatred in the hope of getting a few votes," Emery said. "It stoops to a new low."
On the other hand, the ads appear to be making headway with one target group - the members of Upstate Citizens for Equality - which opposes the land claims and tribal sovereignty of the member nations of the Iroquois Confederacy.
"I have a Lazio sign out in front of my property now," said Mel Russo, co-chairman of the UCE. Russo said the ads prompted his Seneca-Cayuga chapter to call a general meeting to discuss whether to break its neutrality and support Lazio.
"Up to now, we had to choose between two piles of garbage for dinner," he said.
Lazio actually raised the land claims issue earlier, but with little impact. In an Oct. 8 press release, he denounced the "Clinton Justice Department" for its involvement in the Seneca Nation's suit over Grand Island in the Niagara River.
"In this case, they should get out, they should drop the individual landowners on Grand Island as defendants in these suits and they should lift the cloud from these people so they can recoup some of the value of their houses," Lazio said.
Of the three active Iroquois suits, the Grand Island case is the only one still naming homeowners as defendants, said Robert B. Porter, member of the Seneca Nation and professor of law at the University of Kansas Tribal Law and Government Center. He said legal maneuvering was under way to discharge the individual property owners from the suit, as Federal Judge Neal P. McCurn did for 20,000 homeowners in the Oneida suit in late September.
However, Russo of the UCE argued that in the third suit, brought by the Cayuga Nation, homeowners were only "severed," not fully dismissed and could be brought back into the suit at any time. He added that their interests were hurt, whether or not they were in a suit, because tribal sovereignty took land off local tax rolls, raising their property taxes and gave untaxed tribal businesses a competitive edge over non-Indian merchants.
"It doesn't make a bit of difference whether they're in the suit or out of the suit," he said.
Such fine points do not appear in the Lazio ad, which does not specify which land claim suit it attacks. The text, prepared by the Murphy Pitak Gautier Hudome Agency, reads in part:
"For so many of us, the fulfillment of the American dream is owning your own home. But in parts of New York, that dream is being threatened. Incredibly, the Clinton administration's Justice Department is suing New York homeowners to reclaim hundreds of thousands of acres of land, claimed by an Indian treaty that's more than two hundred years old."
In every paragraph, the ad tries to wrap candidate Hillary Clinton in "this Clinton lawsuit against our homeowners," brought by "the Clinton Justice Department."
"But Hillary Clinton has stood silent," it concludes. "Clinton refuses to stand up for the rights of upstate New Yorkers. That's a big difference between Rick Lazio and Hillary Clinton."
The Clinton campaign did not respond to a request for a comment. The Lazio campaign provided the text of the ad, but did not respond to a follow-up phone call.