Elections 2012: Making a difference: Recalling Slade Gorton

It’s easy to say, Native American voters make a difference. But is it true? What’s the track record of successes and failures?

I think about this question in the context of termination. What if there had been a strong Native American vote during the era of Utah Sen. Arthur Watkins? Would there have been an attempt to defeat the ardent champion of termination at the polls?

You don’t need to look at the 1950s to answer that question. Just recall the 2000 race between Slade Gorton and Maria Cantwell in Washington state.

Gorton, a former attorney general of Washington, led the states’ fights against tribes over fishing rights in the 1970s. Once he was in the Senate he picked up the battle again, arguing that tribes were more social organizations than governments. His idea of sovereignty was anything a tribe wanted to do with its own members was fine, but when it came to lands, resources and especially power over non-members, forget about it.

The Seattle Weekly captured that idea of Gorton quite nicely with a cover depicting the senator as a modern General George Armstrong Custer.

Before the election season began, before there any candidates, I ran into the late Joe DeLaCruz at a meeting of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. He was excited. He handed me a button: “Dump Slade.”

“Who are you supporting in the primary?” I asked, always the reporter. DeLaCruz laughed as only he could. “It doesn’t matter. We are going to win. We’re going to beat Senator Gorton.”

Elections, of course, are never about one election. Campaigns, movements and ideas strengthen over time. And this had been a campaign that had been evolving in Washington state.

A few years before the Gorton election a coalition of tribes and church groups came together to defeat a ballot measure against treaty rights. The idea of Initiative 456 was to make Native Americans “citizens” like everyone else. Even though this ballot measure could have no force in law – most of the issues weren’t even within state authority – tribes set out to defeat. One smart part of that effort was hiring the former chairman of the Republican Party, splitting the very base that Slade Gorton considered home.

The Washington tribes won that battle – and learned a lot about electoral politics. A few years later a similar initiative made the ballot to stop tribal gaming. The tribes won that one, too. But most important was how those lessons about alliances and reaching out to the larger neighborhood helped build a political coalition, one that changed Washington state for the better.

Tribes applied those lessons in the Gorton-Cantwell race. There was money donated from across the country. There was organization and registration of potential Native American voters, and building a broad coalition. The editorial board at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (the paper where I later worked) endorsed Cantwell citing Gorton’s anti-Native American record.

In the end, Gorton-Cantwell race won by a whisper, less than 3,000 votes out of 2.5 million cast.

But it turns out Joe DeLaCruz was right. Native Americans did beat Sen. Gorton.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.