The 2006 midterm elections and their resounding call for change were set in motion by that ill wind, Katrina, in August 2005.
When the levies broke in Louisiana, they did more than flood the Big Easy. The sight of people losing everything and the world losing a great city had the effect of a bucket of cold water across the face of America.
Dormant and first-time voters awoke thinking the war in Iraq was a mess that was diverting people and money from the home front. A critical mass of people started asking who lost the war, who lost New Orleans and who lost that huge budget surplus?
More and more Americans blamed President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress for making the rich richer and the poor poorer, and moving jobs away from people in the middle.
Some people snapped to the racial, social and class issues revealed on network and cable television, and started talking about them in terms of political action.
Others tried to shut down such talk with the ever-popular refrain, “Look, you can’t blame that on the president.” A lot of people must have answered, “Why not,” because Bush’s favorable ratings dropped precipitously.
Members of the president’s party panicked and started shooting themselves in the foot (except for you-know-who, who shot the nearest trial lawyer in the face).
Potty-mouthed and sticky-fingered politicians – and one with a predilection for teenaged boys – couldn’t resist being themselves in public and getting on the front page. Few officeholders were overly confident about their chances of being re-elected.
Likely voters told pollsters they wanted to clean house – by which they meant both the House and the Senate. Many also wanted to clear out the White House, but no one there was up for election.
All the Democrats had to do was cry foul, run some good candidates and get out the vote.
When the shouting died down, almost all Republican hopes were dashed. Two senators – George Allen of Virginia and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania – blew their congressional seats and their presidential prospects.
Democrats won enough races to control both the House and Senate in January 2007, when the 110th Congress convenes.
In the new Congress, the speaker of the House – the third highest constitutional officer, after the president and vice president – will be a woman, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California. Today, the most sought-after button among women Democrats on Capitol Hill reads: “I’ve waited 200 years for this.”
The new Congress will have a record number of women and people of color in leadership positions and as panel chairs. Most of them differ from the current leaders in that they are committed to winding down the war and ramping up benefits for workers and poor people.
And these Democrat leaders don’t cross picket lines.
Rep. J.D. Hayworth of Arizona and other Republicans who strong-armed tribal leaders into anti-union positions will not be returning to Congress, but Indian leaders will still have business before pro-labor congressional leaders.
Former clients of former lobbyist and now convicted felon Jack Abramoff will find that, while the main champions of Team Abramoff have given up or lost their seats, others remain. And, of course, the administration is the same, minus a few who have left and who may soon depart in the wake of the various scandals.
In the 110th Congress, the Democrats will have a narrow majority in the House and a razor-thin one in the Senate. Governance and progress – and maybe just plain manners – will set the tone and determine the outcome of the 2008 congressional and presidential campaigns.
The next two years will drive home the aphorism for tribal representatives that, in politics, there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies.
On the day after the election, I had the good fortune to be at a gathering of predominantly women and people of color in Kansas City, Mo. The group was thrilled with the outcome of the elections and with the announcement of the departure of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who was thrown on the pyre before the last vote was counted.
The election of that state’s auditor, Claire McCaskill, to the Senate was not decided until after midnight. When the votes from Kansas City and St. Louis were tallied, she declared: “The Democratic Party has once again claimed Harry Truman’s Senate seat for the working people of Missouri.”
Missourians voted to raise the minimum wage to $6.50 an hour. Five other states also raised their hourly pay rates: Montana and Nevada to $6.15, Arizona to $6.75, and Colorado and Ohio to $6.85.
Pelosi vows that the new Congress will raise the federal minimum wage from the $5.15 per hour rate at which it’s been stuck for 10 years.
McCaskill, who will serve on five committees, including Indian Affairs, said the vote for her was a vote for accountability in the economy and war.
The “Show Me” state also voted for embryonic stem-cell research, which was promoted in ads featuring actor Michael J. Fox. Conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh, who mimicked Fox’s Parkinson’s symptoms, may have inadvertently assisted Fox, whose candidates and initiatives all won.
In the senatorial race in Tennessee, the Republican National Committee ran a bigoted ad against the Democrat candidate, Harold Ford, who is African-American. A few pundits have written that the state is not as racist as it once was because Ford only lost by 3 percent.
The Republicans who hold the records for most bigoted remarks on the campaign trail – Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana and Sen. George Allen of Virginia – were the last two senators to concede. I wonder if they regretted their respective “macaca” moments during the last agonizing hours of their re-election bids.
I wonder too if either Burns or Allen contemplated their behavior toward Native people in their states while the votes were being counted in their very close contests.
<i>Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.