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Nevada and Reno-Sparks leader Melendez endorses Clinton

Indian Country Today Exclusive

WASHINGTON - A Native leader with a national profile has endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, providing her campaign with an edge in the key early primary state of Nevada - sparsely populated and closely contested enough that the Indian vote could make the difference.

But Arlan Melendez, chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, vice-president of the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada and a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, kept his eyes on the nationwide prize during an interview on the endorsement. As national co-chair of the Clinton campaign, he said he'll work with other tribal leaders to put together an Indian issues platform for the 2008 elections. ''It's not just the president,'' he added, noting that Democratic candidates must increase the party's majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate in order to give a Hillary Clinton presidency a solid chance to enact much-needed pro-Native legislation.

As for Clinton herself, Melendez said no other candidate is as qualified to unite the nation while advancing diverse cultures, including the Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian cultures. She headed up a Democratic forum on Native issues in 2004, and Melendez expects the experience will stand her in good stead. ''She knows the issues already, and she'll hit the ground running.''

Melendez will press a Clinton presidency for reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, stymied for six years going on eight during the George W. Bush presidency. Between the diabetes epidemic and the methamphetamine plague, ''To our tribes that's the most important thing.''

As quoted in a media release he added, ''She has demonstrated her commitment to addressing the types of health care challenges facing our Native communities.''

But federal funding has been a problem for Indian programs, in part because the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have diverted federal revenues from domestic programs more or less across the board. Indeed, the day before Melendez went public with his endorsement of Clinton, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, deplored the lack of resources for Indian needs, then noted that even as he spoke in committee, a $640 billion appropriation for military spending was under debate on the Senate floor. As a Democratic senator from New York, Hillary Clinton has not been a firebrand in confronting the Iraq war.

Melendez, a marine veteran of the Vietnam era, said that as president Clinton will without doubt scale back the U.S. military presence in Iraq and plow the revenue savings into domestic programs. She will also appoint a more favorable slate of federal officials than at present, Melendez said. ''If you don't have the leadership all the way down, Indians will not be served. I think some of the appointments she'll make will be helpful there.''

President Bill Clinton appointed some of the government's most effective champions for Indian country in recent memory, from Attorney General Janet Reno to Treasury Secretary Robert Reuben and Comptroller of the Currency Eugene Ludwig. And at the end of the day, candidate Clinton's husband is part of her attraction for Melendez and the Nevada tribes. The former president invited tribal leaders to the White House to meet with him and then First Lady Hillary Clinton, for starters, and in Nevada they've never forgotten it. Melendez said he's certain Hillary Clinton will follow suit if she's elected president - actually, he said ''when'' she's elected president.

For her part, Clinton stated in a media release that she is honored by Melendez's support and endorsement. ''Chairman Melendez is an outstanding national leader - a leading voice for Native Americans, and a dedicated advocate for a just and inclusive society at all levels.''

Proof of the latter has come during Melendez's tenure with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The commission recommended against the federal recognition of a Native Hawaiian governing entity; Melendez filed a dissenting opinion. For a faction of conservative Republican lawmakers, Native Hawaiians since have become a target for arguments against so-called ''special privileges'' based on race, Melendez related. The perspective spills over into agency and executive branch attitudes toward tribes, he said, though in long-settled law tribal governments are a separate category from racial groups. ''We hear the overtones of that, even in the agencies, coming out of the Bush administration. ... If we [any federally recognized tribe] were coming up for recognition now, we would be treated like the Native Hawaiians.''

He said he hasn't spoken with Clinton about her position on Native Hawaiians, but is sure she'll be supportive.

In 1993, during Bill Clinton's presidency, Congress passed a resolution apologizing to Native Hawaiians for historical injustices.