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Members of the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Youth Council attended the debate between candidates Bill Sali and Larry Grant. Coeur d’Alenes co-host political debate

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COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho – The Coeur d’Alene Tribe and North Idaho College co-hosted a debate between Republican Bill Sali and Democrat Larry Grant, candidates for Idaho’s District I seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Tribal Legislative Director Quanah Spencer, Yakama, said he believed this was the first such political debate co-hosted by a tribe and a college.

Spencer said the tribe was becoming more proactive on issues. “Even though this is an off-year election it’s still very important and also a great way to bring a North Idaho perspective to the national scene.”

Tony Stewart, political science instructor at the college, gave Spencer and the tribe credit for arranging this first debate. He reiterated its importance. “This is one of about 45 House seats in question this year and even one or two seats could prove critical. The tribe could not have picked a better year to start this or a better race.”

Each candidate was allowed a brief opening comment before questions were posed to them from a four-member panel.

Grant quoted a newspaper saying, “It wasn’t too long ago we had money in our pockets and friends around the world. Why I’m in the race is that I believe this country is on the wrong track. We need to fix it and to do that we need to send some new folks to Washington, D.C.”

Sali described himself as “a free market, pro growth, social conservative who believes that this country really is a shining city on a hill.” He spoke of “breakup of the family” as the biggest problem in a social context followed by a “moral decline.”

A question was posed regarding improvements to the education system. Sali responded, “Education is a local matter. Washington officials don’t know the local needs.” Grant agreed that education is a local matter but added “the U.S. still has the greatest education system in the world. We don’t decide at the eighth grade level if someone is going to go on to college. We give an opportunity to everyone.”

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Panelist Norma Peone, a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council, asked, “With six tribes in Idaho and many more around the northwest, what is your understanding about tribal sovereignty and your views on that?”

Grant responded, “I think it’s pretty clear that the notion of sovereignty is now established. We have to respect that. It means the tribes are self-governing. It means the tribes should have access to the resources that belong to them. I believe many of the policies of the U.S. government toward the tribes have been misguided and perhaps inadequate, and I think we need to work with the tribes.” He added that he didn’t pretend to know all of the tribal issues but intends to listen and learn, “and more importantly, respect, and take that respect to Washington, D.C. just as I would with any other citizen.”

Sali answered less directly, speaking of a classmate’s reaction to an Indian law class he had taken in college, and “the tension that arises because tribes certainly have sovereignty in certain areas but then vote in elections for the U.S. government and how can they be part of a sovereign nation and vote in another sovereign nation’s government?” He added, “They are mind-boggling issues and the best answer I can give is that the U.S. Supreme Court has struggled with these issues and has come down with doctrines that apply. That’s what makes the difference. What I think doesn’t make a difference. As a congressman, I would make sure we uphold the constitution of the U.S. and that would include Supreme Court decisions regarding sovereignty.”

Peone’s second question concerned the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and how it’s pretty much stagnant. “What would you propose to do to get it on track and in operation?”

Grant admitted to not being familiar with all the provisions of that program. He responded that he’d visited the Coeur d’Alene, Nez Perce and Duck Valley reservations and that each now has hospitals and health care, and noted the concerns about high rates of diabetes and other problems that appear to be frequent with Native people. He voiced his support for health care for all aspects of the population including reservations.

Sali also said he wasn’t very familiar with that program so he spoke about his approach to health care in general. “I don’t know that I would favor an act that gives any tribe or anyone some type of preferential treatment, nor should we have an act that gives substandard treatment. People should have access to health care on pretty much an equal footing.” He noted that health care is a huge problem and that government programs are driving health care costs.

In a rebuttal, Grant voiced his thought that you cannot treat reservations the same as anywhere else because of special problems, including geography and distance to medical care and that hospitals on reservations can be difficult to keep staffed and certified.

A full-house of more than 200 listened to the debate. In the audience was the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Youth Council, young people that have been helping on the reservation to get out the vote. For them, this visit was an opportunity to see politics in action.