SIOUX CITY, Iowa - A popular political commentator on CNN's Crossfire has entered into an arena of discrediting a group of people because of their political activity.
American Indians across the State of South Dakota are angered by comments made by Robert Novak that implied the 2002 election was rigged by ballot box stuffing and that Sen. Tim Johnson D-S.D. took the election because of it.
"In 2002, (John) Thune would have been elected to the state's other Senate seat, but the election was stolen by stuffing ballot boxes on the Indian reservations. Now Tom Daschle may have to pay for that theft," Novak said on Crossfire.
James Carville, who contrasts Novak's conservative leanings said, "That's pretty out there. Has Thune said that the Native Americans are election thieves?"
Novak replied, "No I said it." He added that is wasn't the Republican party line, but that it was "my line."
Novak and Carville began the discussion on Crossfire by discussing Thune's entrance into the race against Daschle. Novak commented on the fact that it will be a tough race because George W. Bush has garnered 60 percent of the South Dakota vote. He said Daschle should have been saved the trouble of opposing Thune. He then broke into his comment about American Indians stealing the vote and the election.
The comments were heard by Frank LaMere, Winnebago, a political activist who heads the Four Directions Political Action Committee and is a member of the Democratic Committee of Nebraska.
LaMere said he decided to tune into Crossfire because CNN had earlier presented a balanced report on the announcement that Thune would run against Daschle.
"After the program I contacted everyone I know. This is a blatant racist statement and serves no purpose other than to pull people apart," LaMere said.
LaMere sent a letter to Novak, but has not received a response.
"All I asked is that he treat Native voters with respect, and give credit for Indians to empower themselves," LaMere said.
The American Indian vote in 2004 will again be very important to both candidates. National political operatives will be involved and will watch what happens in this race. People locally continue to encourage the American Indian population to vote and in larger numbers than before.
"Bob Novak's comments were an unfair, offensive, and malicious attack on every Native American who went to the polls to exercise his or her right to vote in 2002," Daschle said in a prepared statement.
"As wrong as Novak's comments were, they are just one in a long line of statements from members of the Republican Party that seem designed to discourage Native Americans from voting.
"It is time that Bob Novak and others who have worked to spread these false allegations apologize and put this episode behind us. The record levels of participation on South Dakota's reservations in 2002 is something that should be celebrated not demeaned."
Lower Brule Chairman Michael Jandreau and Democratic Party Chairwoman Judy Olson-Duhamel also called for an apology from Novak.
Olson-Duhamel said it was an outrageous, debasing, racist, insulting remark. She called on Thune to counter the comment.
"We (The South Dakota Democratic Party) demand an apology. We want to know what facts he had and what resources he used to make such an inhumane statement. It was insulting and degrading."
Olson-Duhamel said the Democratic Party in the state does not recognize American Indians only at election time, "we are involved all the time. This is not a political ploy that we are doing, it's the right thing to do," Olson-Duhamel said.
She added that the issue will not be dropped by the Democrats.
"He owes all the people of South Dakota an apology. There is no way this can't be colored OK, it can't be dismissed," Olson-Duhamel said.
The state Republican Party position is that the comments were "appalling." Randy Frederick, state GOP chairman said that the voter turnout increase on the reservations was a good thing.
"(Novak's) comments were inappropriate and out of line," said Dick Wadham, Thune's campaign manager. "We plan to work hard to gain support in Indian country and we will campaign hard in the coming months."
Chairman Jandreau also sent a letter to Novak that included criticism of a Dec. 13 comment by Novak; "Indians, they got phony Indian votes out there," Novak said.
"These attacks are outrageous, offensive and factually wrong," Jandreau wrote.
"Your suggestion that we were stuffing ballot boxes on the Indian reservations and providing phony Indian votes is a racist charge and supports the sad partisan political fantasy of a candidate who lost a close election.
"You collectively attack a race for something that just isn't true. Those remarks are underserved and demean objective journalism.
"Our people deserve to have a voice in the democracy you and I both cherish, just like every other American," Jandreau wrote. "When Native Americans exercise that franchise and powerful people like you characterize our participation as suspect solely because you may not like the outcome of an election, you only serve to undermine the fundamental principle upon which our great Republic is built."
Novak was in Iowa and not available for comment. LaMere said he will be in the Iowa Capital and try to meet with Novak in person.
Sen. Johnson defeated Thune by fewer than 600 votes in 2002. Johnson states readily that it was the American Indian vote in the state that put him over the edge in a hotly-contested race.
Accusations of voter fraud on reservations and among American Indians came from various sources and the Republican Party was named as a primary source of the accusations. Three people in the state, who worked for the Democratic Party to gather voter registrations, were accused of submitting phony cards in order to be paid on a per card basis.
Two of those people have been convicted of fraudulent voter activity. But the State Attorney General's office, headed by a Republican conducted an investigation and found no apparent intentional voter fraud.
"Even the Republican Attorney General Mark Barnett called the allegations of ballot-stuffing during the 2002 race flat false. For Bob Novak, a seasoned political commentator, to throw around such allegations is yellow journalism at its worst," Johnson said in a prepared statement.
"Native Americans in South Dakota exercised their right to vote on Election Day. Those that say the election was stolen have been proven wrong and are still serving up sour grapes over what was a very successful grass roots effort."
LaMere said because Novak is on CNN he should be looked at in a way anyone would be in the public trust.
"People depend on you for the facts," LaMere wrote.
"The Native people that you denigrated and maligned by your statements, the Dakota, Nakota and Lakota nations are among the most impoverished and disenfranchised of all of this country's citizens.
"I am certain it would be hard for you to know the resolve they have to change things or to understand what is in their hearts," LaMere wrote.
"I find it interesting and ironic that you constantly throw roses to a President who seeks to democratize Iraq, using as his agents of change young fighting men and women who were anxious to vote on South Dakota reservations in 2002," LaMere said.