SEATTLE - Many of the state's tribes are jumping off the fence and making an early move to back Maria Cantwell, one of two Democratic candidates vying for the opportunity to oust Republican incumbent Sen. Slade Gorton in the upcoming election this fall.
Twelve of the state's 28 federally recognized tribes met July 28 in Seattle to discuss formal support of Cantwell, running against Democratic hopeful Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn in the Sept. 11 primary. With the exception of the Quileute Tribe, which remains undecided on whether to issue formal backing at this time, all were eager to get the ball rolling behind Cantwell.
"We are united to defeat Slade Gorton and united behind Maria Cantwell," said Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe and vice-president of the National Congress of American Indians.
Much of the tribes' early support can be attributed to Cantwell's excellent track record on tribal issues and the environment, as well as to a backlash against the state GOP's ill-fated June resolution calling for the elimination of "non-republican forms of government" on reservations.
Cantwell's campaign office was one of the first organizations to bring the resolution to public attention. Her staff notified tribes across the state and contacted other organizations, such as the California Native American Democratic Caucus, helping to mobilize a swift, national response to what was soon to be known as the "Indian Resolution."
Although Gorton distanced himself as rapidly as possible from the resolution introduced by Republican delegate John Fleming, with his track record, it was not difficult for tribes to consider him "guilty by association." And Cantwell's people have done nothing to persuade the tribe's and the rest of the voting public otherwise.
"He created an atmosphere of hostility and intolerance that gives rise to this sort of thing," said Christian Sinderman, Cantwell's communications director. "Fleming and some of the sponsors ... were talking about how they were basically following the lead of their elected officials.
"Well, there's only one elected official that has gone as far as Gorton has on these issues. So it's obvious who they were talking about."
It would be easy enough for Washington tribes to take the "anybody other than Gorton" approach to this election. Both Cantwell and Senn are favorable in comparison to Gorton with his consistent attacks on tribal sovereignty, his support of big business and poor voting record on environmental issues.
But, while Senn is not objectionable and says she will support tribal sovereignty, she does not have the political track record Cantwell has.
At 28, Cantwell went to the state Legislature as one of the youngest women ever elected to the position. She distinguished herself as the architect of the state's Growth Management Act, which she shepherded through a marathon 65-day session. In Congress, she supported landmark legislation such as the Family and Medical Leave Act and President Clinton's deficit reduction plan.
On a more local level, during her tenure in the legislature, she helped the Tulalip Tribe overcome transportation problems caused by rapid population growth north of Seattle.
"The Tulalip Tribe and Maria Cantwell have a long history working together on economic development and other projects, " said Tribal Chairman Stan Jones. "She is a thoughtful, effective and caring legislator. We are proud to support her."
Russ Hepfer, chairman of the Lower Elwa Tribe council, admitted that getting rid of Gorton was the tribe's number one political focus. But he said after researching Cantwell's political record, the tribal council voted to get off the fence and back her rather than wait until after the primary election.
"She has a track record in Congress that has been environmentally friendly and we think she's a sound steward to do that for the natural resources and the environment," Hepfer says. "We think Maria will stand up, not only for individual rights, but for tribal rights - sovereign rights. And that's why we went with her."
Many of the tribes, including Tulalip and Lower Elwa, are putting their money as well as their political support behind Cantwell. Hepfer says his tribe, "even though we're not a gaming tribe," is giving whatever it can to help Indian country get rid of Gorton.
And, bottom line, getting rid of Gorton is what the effort is all about.
"I am proud to be here with so many friends from around the state, and I am grateful," Cantwell said during the endorsement, "that so many tribes from across Washington have come here today to underscore the fact that Slade Gorton needs to be retired."
To contact Cantwell's campaign office call: 425-697-5336