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First American Education Project

OLYMPIA, Wash. - With the Washington state primaries just two months away, local tribes say the heat is on to educate registered voters in the state about Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., and his voting record on a wide variety of issues vital to the state and to Native Americans nationwide.

Leading the education effort is the First American Education Project. Organized last year by Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe, the late Joe De La Cruz of the Quinault Nation, and Billy Frank Jr. of the Nisqually Tribe, the project is well on its way to develop an educational media campaign about Sen. Gorton's policies and voting record.

"We've had focus groups come up with the messages that we think will work," Allen says. "Essentially this is going to be a campaign about asking the readership, 'Do we want to be represented by somebody who abridges historical commitments to Indian nations? Do we want to be represented by somebody who has greater interest in large corporations outside of the state of Washington than helping Indian communities become more self-reliant? Do we want a representative that uses and misuses his political appropriation seats to coerce suppressed communities like Indian committees to relinquish their property rights?'"

Although the focus of the project is getting Gorton out of office because of his consistently negative voting record on issues affecting tribes, polls conducted by an independent firm indicate the general voting population of Washington will be more receptive to information about broad-based issues.

The polls suggest the most persuasive argument against Sen. Gorton is the fact he used an emergency spending bill for Kosovo refugees as a vehicle for a rider amendment benefiting Texas-based Battle Mountain Mining Co. to build an open-pit, cyanide leach mine in eastern Washington.

The fact Gorton voted against a strong patient's bill of rights, guaranteeing HMO patients the right to decide on treatment as well as other protections, and his vote to slash funding for the Environmental Protection Agency were other big voter buzz-issues.

Media messages developed by the project will highlight Gorton's record on these and other issues. The project also polled voters to discover their sentiments concerning Native Americans targeting political figures.

"Our survey ... so far indicates that the readership is not negatively influenced by tribal communities committing large amounts of resources to get their messages out there to the public media. They're not turned off by that," Allen says. "We're making it quite clear that this is Indian money that is being used."

Russ Lehman, managing director of the project, said state and national fund-raising efforts to pay for the education campaign are very encouraging. Most tribes in Washington state have already contributed.

As awareness grows nationally in Indian country about the crucial importance of uniting in a common effort to defeat Gorton's re-election bid, contributions from tribes around the nation are steadily coming in.

On an individual basis, it is the willingness of people like Andy Masiel to step beyond of the boundaries of state, local, tribal and personal interests and to move into a national perspective that is making all the difference, they say.

A Pechanga tribal member and head of the Native American Democratic Caucus in Southern California, Masiel is one of many tribal leaders who are throwing their weight behind the common cause of defeating Gorton. Wherever he goes, wherever he speaks, Masiel says he ends up pitching for contributions to the project - with good results.

But he said he also understands why some tribes and individuals are reluctant to get involved.

"About a month ago I went to a Southwest leadership council conference in Las Vegas, an intertribal council. I was one of the panel speakers and spoke in detail about how to engage politically. ... I also brought up the thing about Slade.

"They did get it, as far as being a political movement to do this. But what they were apprehensive about was, if in fact they do this thing, it potentially could have a back-firing mode on us ... if they contributed or if they did anything.

"I'm not saying the whole delegation felt that way," says Masiel. "But there was some strong sentiment as far as possibly not engaging the process so that no repercussions occur."

Lehman is quick to reassure people that as a non-partisan, non-profit organization, the First American Education Project is not required to release any information concerning names of contributors or the amounts given. Lehman adamantly refuses to talk names and numbers and says the project's non-disclosure policy will never waver.

But the concerns expressed by some tribal members are a great indicator of the power Gorton wields as a senior senator, chairman of the Interior on House Appropriations and as a member of the Select Committee for Indian Affairs. It is just this sort of power-brokering over Indian country that the project aims to defeat.

Several polls suggest Sen. Gorton has never been so vulnerable in his entire 26-year political career. Gorton's reelect figures are 9 points below 50 percent, and only 18 percent of likely general election voters say they will "definitely vote to reelect Gorton." The influential 'Rothenberg Political Report" rates Gorton's reelection as a "toss-up."

Both democratic candidates, Health Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn and former Democratic Rep. Maria Cantwell are strong candidates and both have supportive track records on Indian issues.

Tribal members involved in the anti-Gorton campaign contend that never before has Indian country had such a powerful opportunity to make changes and stand united in making its political clout felt on a national level.

"If we were ever to mobilize Native people throughout this nation in developing a huge pact, I really believe if we were to achieve that ... in terms of being advocates for special races and states like this ... man, that would get a lot of attention," Masiel says. "We could throw $4 million or $5 million at a campaign."

The fact that many Native youths are getting involved in the anti-Gorton campaign is an indicator that just such a united Indian front is close on the horizon.

Ryan Wilson, coordinator for the Northwest Youth Conference, says that at the April conference more than 1,000 young people decided to contribute time and efforts to fund-raise to help the campaign to defeat Gorton.

"We were wondering how they become contributing members of their communities and good citizens," says Wilson. "How do we teach citizenship? Well, citizenship is not about avoiding political issues going on."

Contact the project at (360) 352-9833 or Ron Allen at (360) 683-1109.

Cate Montana reports from the Pacific Northwest. She can be reached at 360-894-5617. Email at stellar@spso.net.

Sen. Slade Gorton's voting record as compiled by the First American Education Project