When Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) pulled out a victory over former senator Conrad Burns by just 3,500 votes in 2006, he was quick to credit the members of Montana’s tribes with helping to push him across the finish line with a win.This November, Tester is facing another tight race in his traditionally conservative state, and once again he’s counting on the Indian vote to help him out. He says he doesn’t take the endorsement of Montana’s tribes for granted, but argues that after six years in office, he has a strong record on tribal issues that should make it easy for Indians to vote for him. He also claims his opponent this time, Republican representative Denny Rehberg, isn’t up to speed on Indian issues: “He can’t compete on my record on any issue, to be honest with you.”Despite those strong words, Tester is quick to offer bipartisan critiques, saying the Obama administration could be doing a better job on some Indian issues. He also praises bipartisan action on the Hill, which he says has been one of the keys in getting things done for Indian country. “Democrats have some good ideas; Republicans have some good ideas,” says Tester. “Who cares who gets the credit? Let’s just do right.”In the days leading up to the election, Tester sat down for an interview with Indian Country Today Media Network that touched on Native voting rights, federal tribal policy successes and the need for politicians of all stripes to work together to help Indian country economically.The American Indian vote was important to you in your last election—how about this time around? It’s critically important that Native Americans exercise their right to vote, regardless of where they live. Native Americans serve at a higher percentage than any other minority in our military. They have fought and died for that right to vote. Plus, the Native American vote is going to be really important in this election. Every vote is going to count. Citizens of three Montana tribes have filed a voting-rights lawsuit because satellite offices for early voting are not available on some reservations. Is that going to hamper the ability for some Natives to vote? We’ve never had satellite offices. I’m not making any sort of judgment on the case, but the bottom line is that we need to make sure that everyone who is eligible to vote can vote. There shouldn’t be any suppression of the vote.
Can your opponent compete with your record on Native American issues? No, I serve on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs—we work hard, and the accomplishments are many, from the Native American protections in the Violence Against Women Act to the Indian Health Care Improvement Act to water settlements to my work with veterans to the Tribal Law and Order Act to NAHASDA. I am very proud of my record. I also visit every reservation in Montana every year. That’s something that my opponent does not do. The bottom line is I pride myself in representing the entirety of Montana, not just the ultrarich. For a lot of folks in Congress, knowledge of Indian issues doesn’t come easy. Why do you feel comfortable connecting with Indian constituents? I’ve got a big advantage. First of all, the Rocky Boy [Reservation] is about 25 miles away from my farm, as the crow flies. Two, I served in the Montana State Senate with some really great Indian folks—people who were real leaders in Indian country and in the state Congress. I got the chance to debate and learn about issues and get their perspectives. I also get around a lot now, and I talk to folks in Indian country about education and health care and housing and water and police protection. It has been very educational. It’s all about trying to understand. I’m not a Native American; I have never lived on a reservation, but it is my job to listen. And we make decisions based on what I’m hearing and seeing on the ground. What’s it like of working on Indian issues in Congress? How do good Indian bills get passed? It’s an educational process. Not all states have reservations. Not all states are rural. Rural, large land-based tribes have some real challenges, and we have to help members of Congress understand that. When Byron Dorgan of North Dakota was chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, he did a great job on that. Now that Byron’s gone, I try to provide that perspective of what can work in Indian country and what hasn’t worked. There are people on both sides of the aisle who are willing to be educated. And there are some who aren’t. The bottom line is we have to continue good information so people can make decisions. If they’ve got the information, they will make good decisions. You mention working with people on both sides of the aisle. A lot of Indians note that bipartisanship is important to them because that’s how Indian bills tend to get passed. Do you think bipartisanship is important? Yes, it is important on Indian issues; it is important on all issues. When we work together, set politics aside, and really look at the issues—[doing that] is one of my strengths. I have a strong record of getting together with both sides of the aisle and trying to come up with solutions. That’s really where it happens. Democrats have some good ideas. Republicans have some good ideas. Who cares who gets the credit? Let’s just do right. For some Democrats, relating to Republicans in the current political atmosphere is not easy, and vice versa. How do you do it?
Instead of going about it from a point of disagreement, you start with what you agree on and work off of that. We agree on far more than we disagree on, so let’s find out what we agree on and start there. Has the Obama administration pushed enough for tribal economic growth? A lot of good things have been done, but I think we can always do better when it comes to job creation. You also haven’t been afraid to be critical of fellow Democrats, including President Obama. That’s right. Everybody in Congress has good ideas, and they have bad ideas. You jump on the good ones, and you stop the bad ones. It’s the same thing with the president. If he has got some good ideas, we will support them. If he has got some ideas that don’t work for Montana or Indian country, we’re going to ratchet them back. You have supported job growth plans for Indian country. A lot of people want it to happen. Why is it so difficult to get that done in some areas of Indian country? I think it depends on which part of Indian country you’re talking about. Water is a big challenge. Some tribes have no water, which is partly why we have fought hard for water settlements. You’ve also got to have safety. You’ve got to have a good education, which is where tribal colleges come in. You’ve got to have good housing. These are big challenges. What we have to do is focus on the infrastructure, and then look at the other tribes around the country and ask what they are doing right. You’ve mentioned some legislative successes; there are also some lingering issues that Indians want to see get done soon, fixing Carcieri v. Salazar among them. Do you think Congress will soon address a Carcieri fix? I certainly hope so. Once again, this is a big educational issue. I am going to do my level best to make sure that a Carcieri fix at least gets a vote on the floor. I think we can do the work from there. It’s a big issue for Indian country. It’s crucial that the tribes really push and educate on this issue. Senator Daniel Akaka [D-Hawaii], who is the current chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, feels passionately about it, but it still hasn’t moved. Same [thing happened] under Dorgan. We need to get more [legislators] feeling passionate about it. VAWA also needs to get done in the upcoming lame ducks session of Congress; [we need to] keep the tribal jurisdictional provisions in there to give Native American women and communities some opportunity to curb and stop the violence. Final question, on the settlement of Cobell v. Salazar. Four Indians have appealed it to the Supreme Court, and Indian country is waiting to see if the court picks it up. Do you think it will? I want to see it resolved. Elouise Cobell was an incredible visionary and an incredible woman. In her memory, if for nothing else—not to mention its impacts on the Native American people—it would be a good thing to get through the courts, so we can get on with it.