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McCain: At a crossroads with Indian country

WASHINGTON – With John McCain in the chairman’s seat, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs reported in June 2006 on the efforts of former Republican lobbying impresario Jack Abramoff to undermine the casino hopes of both the Tigua of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo in Texas and the Alabama-Coushatta.

“To pursue ... grass-roots efforts against the Tigua, Abramoff turned once again to his longtime friend and business associate Ralph Reed.”

Abramoff is getting jail time (he is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 4), in part for his conduct toward the Tigua and Alabama-Coushatta. Reed, famous as the former executive director of the Christian Coalition and then with Century Strategies Inc., declared his innocence of wrongdoing and was never so much as threatened with prosecution. But the tarnish of the SCIA investigation, spearheaded by McCain, torpedoed his campaign for lieutenant governor of Georgia in 2006.

Without intending it, Reed may return the favor for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, at least as far as Indian country is concerned. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a Washington Post blog site and numerous other media outlets report that McCain has turned to Reed for help with fundraising in Georgia, no doubt for some of the same reasons that recommended Reed to Abramoff – above all, his influence among Christian conservative and evangelical churchgoers.

McCain entered the presidential campaign with considerable standing in Indian country – not bad for a Republican on overwhelmingly Democratic turf. But even prior to the rapprochement with Reed, a number of announcements and positions had compromised his support in some quarters and led to a re-evaluation in others.

“I don’t know this John McCain anymore,” said an Indian political veteran, on the eve of the McCain-Reed arrangement becoming public, adding afterward, “I don’t know if this John McCain knows John McCain anymore.”

Still other opinion leaders continue to support him, among them retired Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, now a lobbyist with the Holland & Knight law firm in Washington, and former U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Thomas B. Heffelfinger, now with Best & Flanagan LLP in Minneapolis.

Heffelfinger has good things to say about McCain’s Democratic rival for the presidency as well. Barack Obama would likely restore the Indian-specific priorities of Janet Reno, U.S. attorney general under President Clinton, he said: a major consideration, in view of Indian country’s present crisis in law enforcement and Reno’s contrasting track record of achievements.

“But I think McCain will be better for Indian country,” he added. As a prominent member of the only consistently bipartisan committee in Congress, the SCIA, McCain knows how to work effectively in Congress on behalf of Indian country, Heffelfinger said. His commitment to law and order for reservations is iron-clad; and unionization, which Heffelfinger considers a genuine threat to tribal sovereignty, gets no quarter from McCain.

No presidential candidate in living memory has ever had the positive credentials in Indian country that McCain can bring to the Oval Office, Heffelfinger said. “You know where his commitment lies, and it will be strong. ... That’s an incredible opportunity, in my opinion.”

But it’s an opportunity for McCain as well, to gain a constituency in Indian-populous key states, and indications that he hasn’t seized it so far continue to register. McCain will remain a lawmaker to be reckoned with in Indian country if he doesn’t win the presidency, a prospect that has generated a reluctance to criticize him on the record. In recent weeks, however, each of the following concerns has been raised by Natives who either liked him in the past, due to the knowledge of Indian country that he derives from representing Arizona tribes in the Senate; or who liked him in the past and still do, based on personal familiarity and character:

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•McCain is opposed to raising taxes and in favor of balancing the budget. “That will only happen on the backs of Indian people.”

•He has spoken highly of Supreme Court justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Neither has distinguished himself as an opponent of Indian country, exactly; but the next president will likely make several appointments to the aging court, and the great weight of opinion in Indian country is that a strong majority, cast in the McCain-favored mold of Roberts and Alito, would represent a clear and present danger to tribal rights.

•During his second stint as chairman of the SCIA, 2005 to 2007, with his Republican Party in the majority, his high-profile initiatives were to join GOP hard-liners in a failed rally against off-reservation gaming and to stiffen the requirements for the federal recognition of tribes. Meanwhile, issues that were all but invisible to non-Indians, such as law enforcement, health care, education and the rural drug crisis, got nothing like the attention they should have, in the view of numerous tribal and Indian-issue advocates. Especially compared with his first go-round as SCIA chairman, from 1995 to 1997 – “It’s like he got president-itis.”

•The candidate made a televised spectacle of himself on sex equity not long ago, misremembering quite how he had voted on a bill that would have given women the same insured access to birth control pills that men have to Viagra (he opposed the bill twice). Just as damning is that McCain declined comment on an evolving effort of President Bush’s administration to regulate taking birth control pills as self-administered abortion, according to The Wall Street Journal. Indian women would already be subject to a special ban on conventional abortion under an amendment offered to the Indian Health Care Improvement Act by Sen. David Vitter, R-La.

•On the environment, McCain is still remembered for bringing a telescope to Mount Graham in Arizona, to the disruption of Apache culture and red squirrel habitat. And he is viewed with concern in some quarters for a commitment to offshore oil drilling and exploration, an agenda that could expand to include the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in view of McCain’s refusal to disavow oil extraction there.

One leader of the senior generation was more than willing to go on record against McCain. Elmer M. Savilla, Quechan, has a long memory of McCain, going back to the late 1980s, when he believes the SCIA injudiciously pursued Navajo leader Peter MacDonald. He is also convinced that McCain could have gone beyond the “one good shot” he gave to settling the litigation over the Individual Indian Money trust, in the case of Cobell v. Kempthorne.

“John McCain at one time claimed that he was a friend of Indians,” Savilla said. “He hasn’t done anything substantial except hold an occasional hearing and talk like a friend.

“I’m telling everybody out there that he’s not the guy. He’s not the man for Indian country.”

After a pause, Savilla added, “The hell of it is, neither is the other one” – meaning Obama.

He considers both candidates prone to exaggerated promises and shifting opinions, at least until the election is over. But at least in the long run, the court’s still out for him on Obama. For McCain, as far as he’s concerned, the verdict is in.

McCain’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment or an interview with the candidate.

But Campbell, still one of the most respected figures in Indian country, continues to speak up for his former colleague in the Senate. Press accounts from the Indian-populous state of Wisconsin report that he made a pitch for McCain to a gathering of tribal leaders there, praising two decades of accomplishment for tribes. The Northern Cheyenne statesman repeated his theme of recent years that the Indian vote will be critical in key so-called “battleground” states.