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In voting for president ... the power is in the appointments

The recent announcement that a record number of home mortgage loans are being made to Navajos on Navajo land is a good reminder as we enter the presidential election season.

The reminder is that whether we are voting for presidents, senators or representatives, we cannot become wrapped up in personalities, certainly not nowadays, when those who most consistently achieve their political ends are quick to discount the value of any single decision-maker.

Instead, we must look to the team that can guide a wide range of efforts through the complications of make-and-mend policies to a favorable outcome. In the case of the presidency, that team will be a cast of appointees whose sustained commitment alone can move an executive order from the page into actual practice.

The appointees of a president are the people who carry out policy at the highest levels - the cabinet and senior department levels. While it is the president who establishes the policy, the commitment of a president's appointive team is often the difference that makes the difference on American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian issues.

By that standard, the Clinton administration has established a record of commitment to Indian country that successors will be hard-pressed to top - though that doesn't mean it won't be done. It means we should cast our votes with a view toward the appointive team that can continue the momentum, and then hold that administration accountable.

For the record, here are some benchmarks of accomplishment for the new administration.

The Navajo home mortgage loans are being made in part because many people have worked hard over many years to make it possible, and in part because President Clinton focused these efforts through his much-derided "one-stop mortgage" initiative of 1998.

At First Nations, we could never quite figure out why the "one-stop mortgage" policy was such a lightning rod for naysayers, given that so many close observers have agreed on the many separate pieces of the Indian-mortgage loan problem. Gathering the pieces of the puzzle into one place was the natural solution from where we sat.

Perhaps the sheer magnitude of the puzzle made people believe Clinton would never really deliver.

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He wouldn't have, inevitably, if it had been up to him alone. But eight years ago, in 1992, he had appointed Eugene Ludwig as Comptroller of the Currency, overseer of all nationally chartered banks. Ludwig was persuaded to visit the Navajo Nation. He noted the lack of banks while driving across the vast reservation, and he would devote much of his term in office to doing something about it.

One of the things he did was to talk with another Clinton appointee, Attorney General Janet Reno. Reno made the ultimate decision to bring successful action against two banks which were discriminating against Indian country and Indian clients. The action served notice on all border-town banks that they would have to serve Indian country.

In the course of the department's learning process with regard to Indian country, the attorney general found judicial systems on reservations are generally underserved, with heavy consequences for commercial activity and investment.

One result was the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Tribal Justice; another was the Indian Tribal Justice Technical and Legal Assistance Act of 1999. And that only scratches the surface of good works the Justice Department of Janet Reno has bestowed on Indian country.

When Eugene Ludwig went to the Navajo Nation, the persuaders were former Navajo Chairman Peterson Zah and his lieutenants, Rodger Boyd and James Berg. The latter two are still at work on issues of banking and credit in Indian country, but now with the Native American program of the CDFI Fund, another useful project that never would have been launched without the efforts of a Clinton appointee.

Robert Rubin, former secretary of the Treasury, not only gave the green light to Ludwig's efforts, he also saw to it that the CDFI Fund live up to its authorizing legislation - the Community Development Banking and Financial Institutions Act of 1994, which included provisions for a study of credit access in Indian country.

Despite back-channel efforts to move it along, the study lay dormant throughout an initial period of mismanagement at the CDFI Fund. As the CDFI Fund emerged from this phase under the leadership of Ellen Lazar and her chief deputy, Maurice Jones, Secretary Rubin ordered the Indian credit study done.

Other names could be mentioned - just for starters, John Hawke and Donald Hammond, also in Treasury, who steered the Electronic Funds Transfer legislation to a good outcome for Indian country.

The honor roll could go on and on. The point is that it only begins with a president.