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In hindsight, Seminoles say they could have made the difference

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HOLLYWOOD, Fla. - None of the registered voters on the five Seminole reservations spread through southern Florida can say their vote in Election 2000 didn't count this time around.

Those who voted, know they made a difference. Those who didn't are taking a long look at why and a longer look at how they can change the situation.

Voter apathy on these small reservations is reported as high. It has been easy for the 2,700 tribal members scattered through several counties to take an indifferent attitude toward politics. Decades of shallow-voiced stumping by local and state politicians through the reservations at election time, followed by two to four years of cold indifference, has left many tribal members bitter and disinterested in the political process.

Without the impact of a solid voting block in any one district, members say they have believed they could not make a difference. Almost a hundred years of strained relations between county officials and the reservations hasn't helped.

But Election 2000 was a major wake-up call.

"Our small population out here could have swayed the vote," says Michele Thomas, Brighton Reservation assistant to the Seminole Tribe of Florida chairman. "It's that small of a number - 300 votes. We have 500 tribal members on this one reservation."

The slender margin of votes in the presidential election has sent the first genuine flicker of political interest through the tribe since ... well, perhaps ever. The office of the general legal council for the tribe is trying to get a handle on just how many registered voters there are on the reservations - and how many of those registered actually voted.

People like Thomas, in positions of tribal leadership, are re-thinking how to assist their people in getting involved.

"I was speaking with a lady in the president's office last week," Thomas says. "And she and I both decided we would work on it as soon as this crazy election was over. That when we were going into another election that we would try to get something in place so we can inform the tribal members."

Thomas says many people in the tribe have expressed the desire for more of a lead from tribal government concerning local and state elections. Dissemination of information about election issues that affect the tribe and information about the various candidate's stances on those issues would be of great assistance to many, they say.

At this point, about the only thing that makes it easy for some members to participate in the general election process is voting booths set up at the tribal council offices. Two of the rural tribes have this service available, and tribal members man the booths to assist those who might need technical help or language interpretation with the ballots.

Jim Shore, tribal attorney and spokesperson says the tribe has been slow to get members registered in recent years, but that after such a close race there will be a lot more interest in future elections.

"I think some of the people that's been involved in the process, the volunteers and the poll workers and that sort of thing, I think they see the interest and the need," Shore says. "It sometimes comes from that level up to the council. But I think once that awareness is out there and put before the council, I think the council members from each reservation will step forward."

Shore says, for the most part, the elders in the tribe are driving increased interest in politics. Plus, with more and more children attending local county schools, parents are beginning to take an interest in government funding and local political issues that affect educational quality and general facilities.

One tribal member has gone so far as to toss a hat in the ring.

Willie Johns, a tribal educator with the Brighton Reservation, ran for Glades County Commissioner this past election. Although he did not win, he came just 1 percent shy of entering a run-off.

Being the first member to run for a county position raised some eyebrows around the reservation, he says. But he had a positive impact - 60 people on the reservation registered to vote just because of his involvement. And he says his participation has helped shift the attitude of "just don't care anymore," that developed over the years.

"The Indians are kind of like sliding votes ... free votes for non-Indians because they don't really service us that much and yet we are still in their district," Johns says. "We're kind of like an Army barracks. So they politic hard here - but they lost here this time because I was in the race."

Johns says he is considering running again next election. Now that he has name recognition, the tide might turn his way. And getting out into the local community has raised public awareness of how much the tribes actually have to offer.

Thomas, who serves on one of the local economic councils in Glades County, says with gaming revenue flowing into the tribe and with a potential casino operation on the horizon, local attitudes are gradually shifting.

"It's kind of the shoe on the other foot situation," Thomas says. "The county ... really didn't give us a lot of support when we were this poor little Seminole tribe. Now we're ... stronger financially ... now they're looking at us saying, 'OK. Now we need your support."

And, as it turns out, their vote.