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LaMere: June 3, a 'red-letter day' in Indian political history

SIOUX CITY, S.D. - Imagine a scenario in which a primary vote to select a presidential nominee or an election to choose the president depended on voting results in South Dakota or Montana. The Native vote could determine the outcome.

That scenario is virtually the case in the June 3 primaries in South Dakota and Montana, said Frank LaMere, a member of the Winnebago Indians of Nebraska.

''What is exciting to me in this presidential year is that June 3 will be a red-letter day in Indian political history. The Native vote on Pine Ridge and Crow and Blackfeet country will determine who the next leader of the free world will be. The impact of the Indian vote is so great in South Dakota and Montana that all of our candidates have found their way to Indian country. That is good.''

The former longtime vice chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, LaMere is now an at-large member for the Democratic National Committee and also sits on the DNC's executive committee, a position that exposes him to the party's inner workings and provides an opportunity to lend his voice to the party's political process.

''The Native voice is critical to any congressional, senatorial or presidential election, because Native people vote in a bloc. Where the tally in a county or state can be too close to call, the tally coming from Indian country is always very clear and, I'm pleased to say, clearly Democratic. We pick up the slack for counties where the vote is too close to call and the impact of a reservation county can be felt throughout the state, and generally is.''

That was certainly the case in recent elections in South Dakota where LaMere worked on the Four Directions Committee, a political action committee created to increase voter participation in Indian country.

South Dakota has around 67,000 American Indians, or almost 9 percent of the state population as of 2006, according to the U.S. Census. Nine percent of the state population translates into around 7 percent of the eligible voting population - a significant amount of political clout, especially in a close race.

In the 2002 congressional race between Democratic incumbent Sen. Tim Johnson and Republican challenger John Thune, Johnson won by 524 votes. His win was attributed to late returns from Pine Ridge. In a state that traditionally votes conservative, more than 90 percent of the votes cast there were for the Democrat.

Two years later during the 2004 general election, Four Directions' aggressive get-out-the-vote campaign resulted in the highest Indian voter turnout in state history. But it wasn't enough to save Democratic incumbent Tom Daschle's seat from Thune's challenge, even though Daschle received 1,000 more votes in Shannon County, where Pine Ridge is located, than Johnson did in 2002.

Although Daschle got more Indian votes than Thune after six visits to Pine Ridge, Thune more than doubled his votes there, from 248 in 2002 to 564 in 2004. In Todd County, home of the Rosebud Indian Reservation, Thune's vote went from 19 percent in 2002 to 21 percent in 2004.

One of Four Directions' tactics in 2004 was to persuade local county governments to establish early voting locations on the Pine Ridge, Rosebud and Crow Creek reservations so that residents didn't have to drive hundreds of miles to vote. The result was a 40 percent increase in turnout over the previous record set in the midterm elections in 2002 and a 133 percent increase over the 2000 presidential election.

''I would anticipate that the same strategies will be employed in 2008 and that, as we speak, somebody's probably preparing the blueprint to do so. That's the nature of get-out-the-vote efforts in Indian country. We are very active and we will be effective,'' LaMere said.

Johnson, who is seeking re-election for his third term, is ahead in the polls and appears to be in a very advantageous position, said Rick Hauffe, executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party. Hauffe agrees that the Native vote was crucial to Johnson in 2002.

''I think it was essential to his victory. And I think without question Tim would say the same thing himself. If it wasn't for the significant effort done on the reservation, he would be practicing law. And he's very grateful for that as well and he absolutely does not take that support for granted.''

The Republicans will also hold a primary June 3 in a three-way race to choose a nominee to run against Johnson.

''I think it would be safe to say none of the candidates are very strong. They're just unknown outside their areas and Tim is very well known across the state and he's very popular,'' Hauffe said.

Johnson underwent brain surgery last year after hemorrhaging from a congenital malformation. He has recovered and is back at work in the Senate.

A member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Johnson lists ''American Indian Affairs'' as one of the issues on his Web site at www.timjohnson.com. Johnson endorsed Sen. Barack Obama last January.

The state is abuzz with excitement about the June 3 primary. Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton, as well as former President Bill Clinton, have visited the state.

''It's what everybody is talking about right now,'' Hauffe said.

The polls show Obama running very far ahead in South Dakota. Obama resonates in Indian country, LaMere said.

''I think Barack Obama represents to Native people a real chance at change. I think he represents to Indian people a new deal. He's not perceived in Indian country as a status quo politician or somebody who will hedge on the issues. I think he will act decisively on matters concerning Native people as our problems are obvious. We will not be ignored.''

LaMere encouraged Clinton to campaign as long as she wants and was unwilling to say that Obama had the nomination locked up.

''It's been a good campaign and let us see where it goes.''

The Crow Nation of Montana, however, appears to have chosen its candidate. On May 19, the nation adopted Obama in a private ceremony and gave him the name ''One who helps people throughout the land.''