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Indian country's lessons from the 2002 elections

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To Indian voters: you indeed can make a difference. In South Dakota, it will be the stuff of legend for Democrats that the Indian vote, severely attacked as corrupted by Republican operatives, put their man over the top. The senatorial race of Tim Johnson was a squeaker, yet aggressively going after the Indian vote was about the only strategy for Democratic success in 2002. But it did work and it proved that in South Dakota, American Indians wield electoral clout. If South Dakota's Democratic senators remain attuned, and there is every indication that this is indeed the case, they will work to ensure the tribes gain the tools necessary for economic growth and self-determination.

To Indian strategists: congratulations for seeing it coming. For the first time, Indian tribes gave more money by far to Republican candidates than to Democrats. According to Federal Election Commission releases, tribal campaign contributions went 55 percent to Republicans this year, up from 21 percent for the 2000 election. Perhaps the seminal shift was in the air, but in fact American Indian strategies necessarily play on both sides of the aisle. While the Democrats have typically been the party of "minorities" and the poor, serious alliances and friendships have emerged between many tribes and Republican candidates on local and state-wide levels that are part and parcel of doing business in America. Within the past ten years, as more and more Indian nations have hinged their tribal recoveries to gaming, energy and other viable business opportunities, they are finding the Republican platforms of lower taxation and a restrained federal government compatible with their interests.

The Mashantucket Pequots, for instance, gave 74 percent of their election contributions to Republicans. The Morongo Band of Mission Indians in Banning, Calif., and the Eastern Band of Cherokees, N.C., dropped their contributions to Democrats to less than 25 percent this year. The Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians of Temecula, Calif., gave only eight percent to Democrats, down from 100 percent in earlier years. At last tally, Agua Caliente gave twice as much to the Republican Party this election than to the Democratic Party. Political donations provide access to power. It's an old, and when abused, sometimes unsavory, but effective strategy.

Certain Republican values, such as self-sufficiency, local control and disdain for taxation, tend to fit well with entrepreneurial tribal leaders, many of whom have developed extensive relationships with senior Republican figures. Mississippi Choctaw leader Phillip Martin, for example, enjoys respectful relations with Republican (soon to be Majority) leader Trent Lott. This carefully cultivated relationship has proven crucial to the Choctaws on several occasions.

No doubt Nov. 5 was hard on Democrats. But, clearly, we have entered a Republican era and the political hat is off to President George W. Bush, who worked his base energetically and practically single-handedly carried this election for his Party. Love it or hate it, the country has now given him the mandate he did not receive in 2000. The important thing is for tribes to position themselves appropriately, supporting allies with the right values and practical solutions over strict party ideologues.

Besides the obvious Indian swing vote in South Dakota, which provides tribes instant lynchpin status, the silver-lining tally for tribes this election includes:

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* New York State, which re-elected Republican Governor George Pataki. After a painful early learning curve on Indian tribal defense against taxation, Pataki has extended a reasonably sincere line of diplomacy and deal making to New York's Haudenosaunee tribes. Advantageous gaming concerns that can fuel major expansion of tribal assets could be the model under this pragmatic Republican. Tribal leadership considering the empowerment of their future generations could turn crisis to opportunity in Pataki's New York. In contrast, New York's Democratic challenger, State Comptroller and African-American, Carl McCall, attacked Indian sovereignty over taxation, openly pandering to the anti-Indian crowd. McCall lost soundly. He certainly alienated the Indian base, which now encompasses the growing thousands of people (and families) who work for Indian tribal enterprises.

* The Connecticut anti-Indian lobby last year led Senators Christopher Dodd and Joseph Lieberman to propose major changes to the way tribal recognition is handled at the BIA. The two Democrats' anti-recognition initiative, which claimed that corruption was fast-tracking priority recognition for some tribes, was crushed in the Senate, in large part by the leadership of Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo. On Nov. 5, two Democratic senators, Max Cleland, D-Ga., and Jean Carnahan, D-Mo., who supported the anti-Indian measure were both defeated. No loss for American Indian nations there.

This issue has an interesting new chapter. Republican BIA Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb's recommendations to fix the recognition process appropriately follow an analysis by the General Accounting Office (GAO). His strategic plan addresses the two recommendations put forward in the GAO report, namely, to clarify the process and improve the timeliness of decision-making. This focus can be seen as responding as much to the needs of the tribes as it does to local and state concerns, not to corruption or any problem over gaming issues, which no one has proven, even though The Wall Street Journal editors have given it wide diffusion.

* In New Mexico and California, Democratic governors Bill Richardson and Gray Davis, carried the day. Richardson is a friend of Indians on most issues; Davis can be worked with.

* In Arizona, there was scuttlebutt over tense issues on tribal referendum initiatives. Republican operatives charged New Mexico Navajos were crossing over to vote in Arizona. Republican operatives also made much hay out of relatively minor voting registration improprieties in South Dakota, but their own attorney general belied the bogus charges. Another Republican to watch for signs of positioning is Senator-elect John Cornyn, who as Texas attorney general was virulent and successful in his campaign to shut down American Indian gaming in his state.

The hopscotch reality of this election supports the idea that making politics piecemeal is not a bad thing for tribes. The goal is empowering American Indian self-governance leading to the rebuilding of our nations. Supporting values and reasonable intelligence on Native needs and issues ? not blind partisan allegiance - is the best Indian approach. The goal for America's politicians is to learn and acknowledge the needs and aspirations of America's first constituency.