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Keefe vs. Nethercutt

SPOKANE, WASH. - The state of Washington is shaping up to be a major player in the upcoming 2000 elections.

A swing state in the presidential race, the Senate race between incumbent Republican Sen. Slade Gorton and former Democratic Rep. Maria Cantwell is also turning out to be a squeaker.

On top of that, the 5th District Congressional race between Spokane lawyer and Democrat Tom Keefe and incumbent Republican George R. Nethercutt Jr. has been listed as one of the top 32 competitive races in the country by the National Journal's "House Race Hotline."

As far as Indian country is concerned it's definitely a race to watch.

A life-long advocate and champion of tribal sovereignty, Keefe defended Indian treaty rights in state courts and served as an appellate court judge for the Northwest Intertribal Court System. Married to Jo Anne Kauffman, a Nez Perce tribal member and health services specialist, Keefe and his family lived for five years on the Nez Perce reservation before moving back to Washington.

In Spokane, Keefe and his wife formed a legal-consulting firm, Kauffman and Associates, specializing in Indian health issues and services.

Although he served as counsel to Seattle's mayor, legislative director to former U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson and counsel to former U.S. Sen. Brock Adams, Keefe never ran for public office. After looking at the 5th District race and Nethercutt's voting record in vital areas concerning tribes - including twice voting for amendments introduced by Rep. Ernest Istook, R- Okla., inhibiting transfer of federal lands into tribal trust - he said he considered running.

At his wife's urging he stepped into the Democratic ring in June.

"I've gone through my life standing up and speaking out for people who need a voice. I'm not afraid to fight the powers. And I'm not afraid to take long shot causes. And I think people appreciate that ... ."

Although the race started out as a long shot, it can hardly be called that anymore. There has been no hard polling by independent research groups, but polls conducted by independent research organizations hired by the candidates' campaign offices indicate a surprisingly close race.

Despite some votes in his record to the contrary, Nethercutt maintains he is a steadfast supporter of tribal sovereignty and treaty rights. He said he is proud of his record in helping increase appropriations for Indian Health Services. He recently introduced an amendment to add $22 million to Indian Health Services. He has also encouraged increases for Type II diabetes study and treatment to the tune of $50 million a year to $100 million a year for the next five years.

"We're working real hard to get more money into the system," Nethercutt says. "We've got ... a corresponding dental problem with people who have diabetes and so we've put in an $11 million increase in the dental program to help with that situation.

"My record shows my commitment to tribal sovereignty. And I think that's why the Spokane have endorsed me and been so kind to me. And I just received a blanket from the Kalispels earlier this summer that says, 'To George Nethercutt, a friend of Indian Country.' And I'm proud of that."

But so far, many tribes around the nation remain unconvinced that Nethercutt's their man. Thirty-seven tribes, including the Tulalip, the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, the Seneca Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and the Menominee Tribe contributed to Keefe's campaign and endorsed his positions. Wilma Mankiller, LaDonna Harris and Georgia George contacted tribal leaders throughout the country, urging them to support Keefe in his race.

When Keefe opened his campaign to the beat of the Nez Perce drums and the words of an ancient warrior's song, little did he know just how much excitement his race was going to generate. If he wins, it will be a major victory for the Democratic party looking for majority seats in the House. It will be an equal victory for tribes and their political supporters.

"I remember 20 years ago Billy Frank told me when I came back from Washington (D.C.) to stay away from Indian treaty rights because if I was identified with them, I would never have a political career in Washington state," says Keefe. "So I was just honored to know that I could be a candidate for Congress and not hide the fact that I do believe our federal government ought to respect its constitutionally-based treaty obligations."