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Gorton in tight race, outcome unknown

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SEATTLE - It's a cliffhanger finish in the state senatorial race between Republican incumbent Slade Gorton and Democratic hopeful Maria Cantwell.

Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro reported it may be Thanksgiving or longer before Washington state knows the outcome of its Senate race.

Nov. 22 is the last day for counties to complete their tabulations and certify results. The secretary's office then has until Dec. 7 to review the totals and certify the returns. An automatic recount will be initiated if the race is won by a difference of less than one-half of 1 percent, Which just might be the case.

Twenty-four hours after the polls closed on Election Day 2000, Gorton led Cantwell by fewer than 4,000 votes, approximately .22 percent. With more than 900,000 absentee ballots outstanding, the race was still anybody's guess.

Ron Allen, director of the First American Education Project which headed up a statewide information campaign against Gorton, said he believed Cantwell would come out victorious.

"We know Slade is up a couple thousand votes right now," Allen said. "But well over 250,000 of those absentee ballots are coming out of Seattle. And she stomped him in Seattle."

Some less positive political activists looked at the absentee figures differently.

"My fear is that it's the older, more conservative voters that do the write-ins," said Ryan Wilson, vice president of the National Indian Education Association. "And that does not bode well."

Russ Lehman, managing director of the First American Education Project, pointed out that no matter what the final outcome, it is important for Indian country to understand what lessons were learned and decide what needs to be done from this point forward.

"If he loses and Indian country kind of rests on its laurels, that will be a major mistake, I think. On the other hand, if he wins and Indian country misreads that as some sort of condemnation of their actions, that's a big mistake also."

Whichever way this race falls - and admittedly it's one of the most important political races in Indian country - tribal members can't miss the fact their votes have been crucial. With an estimated 100,000 registered Indian voters in Washington, tribes were in a position to be the deciding factor.

Political organizers did their best to get tribes around the state motivated.

District 10, where Tulalip executive governmental director John McCoy was running for state representative, reported the largest Native turnout ever in the district.

Sandra Johnson, vice chairwoman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe, said there was a substantial increase in members of her tribe voting in this election.

"We had a great voter turnout across Washington state altogether," she said. "I think we were able to follow through with a whole process this time, which was really important."

The specter of a Bush administration plus the "Dump Slade" movement did more to shift Washington tribal members from political apathy to political avidness than any other race.

The pre-eminent Indian political organization in the state exemplifying that shift was the First American Education Project.

Long before the primaries, the group conducted statewide polls to determine the most effective non-partisan message to present to the general voting public to sway voters toward the Democratic camp. Focusing on Gorton's environmental record, the project ran a major television media campaign highlighting Gorton's less-than-friendly environmental policies.

It also networked to bring the national importance of Washington's senate race to the forefront of Indian consciousness.

As a result, the project received economic support from tribes in Washington and from around the country. Although the group raised less than the $2 million originally estimated to run an effective campaign, the effort, the tribal unification and the national coalition building were hallmarks of a different kind of success.

"This effort was a real change for Indian country," Lehman said. "They've never done anything like this before."

One measure of the effectiveness of the tribal political push in both the presidential race and the Gorton/Cantwell election was the number of national media stories that covered tribal efforts. Another was their impact on Capitol Hill.

"There are a number of friends of Indian country on Capitol Hill who have relayed to us many times recently that they have seen some dramatic change on Capitol Hill as a result of the increased involvement of Indian country, generally, and the actions through First Americans, specifically," Lehman said. "And that's pretty important. That's what it's all about."

There is no doubt Slade Gorton felt the pressure from the tribes. His campaign focused heavily on environmental concerns and his campaign office churned out an unusually high number of press releases concerning his efforts in assisting Indian children.

Even though the final tallies aren't in, members of the project and some tribal leaders are already asking themselves what they could have done better in this election. And they are already looking to the next. State legislative elections are, after all, only two years away.

McCoy, who garnered 40 percent of his district's votes against Republican incumbent Kelly Barlean, stressed how important it is for tribal members to become involved if they want to effect change. Despite a wearying, two-month campaign, he said he will definitely run again next election.

"My opponent knows I'll be watching him."

Allen already is focused on developing an exit effort to get a better sense of what the project needs to do in the next election. Funds are needed to conduct exit polls of tribal members to find out the numbers of registered Native voters in the state and answers to other questions, such as "Did you vote?" And if not, "Why?"

First American Education Project leaders also will be headed to Congress and to get feedback from legislators about their non-partisan campaign.

"We want to find out how effective we were," Allen said. "We want to make sure they understand what the issues of concern were with regard to the tribes and why we got so engaged and why we spent so much money and so forth."

Allen and Lehman agreed the next step is to have the project organize nationally. They stressed that tribes need to step forward in unity for the long haul and not try to recreate coalitions every time important elections roll around.

"Fighting back, reacting to the negative efforts of people like Sen. Gorton, that is how you generate political respect," Allen said. "Congressional candidates now are going to be respectful of tribes. They now realize tribes can enter into these elections and have an impact and know how to influence public perception.

"The bottom-line is to continue to get smarter, more effective and to grow in our political strength."