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'Prez on the Rez' gets a site and a candidate

WASHINGTON - The ''Prez on the Rez'' debate of Democratic presidential candidates, scheduled for Aug. 23 at the Morongo reservation in California, got its first commitment at the National Congress of American Indians Tribal Nations Legislative Summit.

''I want to be the first candidate for president that accepts the debate on the rez - Prez on the Rez, in August at Morongo, California,'' New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson told a near-capacity audience, despite nationwide weather-related travel delays on the first day of the conference, Feb. 26.

''I accept. I'm glad to be there. I was hoping you'd have it at Sandia [the pueblo in New Mexico],'' he added to laughter, ''but I guess that didn't work out. I guess the other candidates felt that was a little too much.''

Richardson, a former cabinet secretary and U.N. ambassador, went on to electrify the crowd with his already trademark announcement that if elected president, he will elevate Indian affairs to a cabinet-level department.

But for Kalyn Free, founder of INDN's List, the speech reached its summit with Richardson's commitment to Prez on the Rez. Free, an at-large member of the Democratic National Committee appointed by DNC Chairman Howard Dean, is counting on 500 tribal leaders, a full slate of 2008 presidential candidates and national media coverage at the first-of-its-kind event in August.

Prez on the Rez is a project of INDN's List, or more accurately of its nonpartisan INDN's List Education Fund. The parent organization is a partisan political entity, a so-called ''527,'' dedicated to recruiting and electing American Indian candidates at every level of politics throughout the nation. Its funding comes from across Indian country, individual donors and organized labor in Free's home state of Oklahoma. ''We believe in the power of Indians as candidates, as contributors, as campaign professionals, and as voters to bring about great change in our country,'' states its press materials. ''When Indians make law and policy, the needs of Indian Country and all those less fortunate are not ignored.''

At an evening reception, Free reeled off the accomplishments of INDN's List in its formative years, beginning with a ''campaign camp'' that attracted politicians and celebrities of national stature and culminated in the 2006 election cycle. ''But the most important thing is that we gave the skills and the resources and the training to our candidates that they needed to run professional, aggressive campaigns, and they went out and they did that. INDN's List endorsed 26 candidates in our first election cycle, and 20 of those 26 candidates won last fall. That's a 77 percent win rate. We helped put the first American Indian woman ever in the Washington state Senate, Claudia Kauffman; helped put the first Indian woman ever in the Montana state Senate, Carol Juneau; helped put the first Indian woman ever in the Pennsylvania Senate. That was a Sac and Fox tribal member, and the Sac and Fox chief was here earlier. We also helped put five new Indians in the Oklahoma Legislature.''

The applause, from 40 to 50 people in a small reception room, was close to thunderous, enforcing a pause. And then Free set off again on the up-tempo beat, just like someone you'd want training political speakers: ''But we're only just getting started. There's never been an Indian woman in the United States Congress, and that's something that INDN's List is working to change very soon, and to put more Indians there. But we have to build that farm team, so that our candidates have the resources, the training, the experience to run for higher office later, while they're protecting our sovereignty at the local level as well.

''So we're looking for candidates to run for school boards and city councils, and state legislatures. ...

''We're having our campaign camp again. It just so happens it's going to be in conjunction with another event. We're having campaign camp on August the 20th through the 25th at the Morongo reservation in California. So we'll be bringing in once again the best and brightest campaign professionals from all over America to work with our candidates, to make sure that they're ready to run in 2008. ... So INDN's List is ongoing; every day we're recruiting a candidate.

''Now Prez on the Rez; I'm so, so excited about Prez on the Rez. What we're going to be doing on August the 23rd ... we're going to be bringing all the Democratic presidential candidates to an Indian reservation. That Indian reservation is Morongo. Smack dab in the middle, we will be bringing in Hillary and Barack [Clinton and Obama], and Bill Richardson and John Edwards and all these people, to a forum that focuses on our issues, for them to talk about the issues that are important to Indian country, and to meet with elected tribal leaders. This has never been done before ... this is a big deal.''

She described a distinction she had made to a reporter who asked if the idea was to convene national candidates who would inform tribal leaders of what they could do for them. ''I said, 'Not exactly.' I said, 'We're bringing these candidates in to Indian country so they can hear from the tribal leaders and Indian country what we expect of them, and what we want them to do if they're elected president.' Big distinction there. ... We want the tribes to all be there. ... You'll have the opportunity to interact with these presidential candidates. And I think that, you know, for a long time we know that Indian country has been the determining factor in so many elections. We can look at Washington state, at Minnesota, and Wisconsin and South Dakota, and even in Oklahoma, and see where the Indian vote has been capitalized on. But it's long past time that these candidates come to Indian country ... and look at us as a source of campaign cash and a source of votes. We not only need a place at the table, but we need a place on the ticket - and that's the work of the INDN's List and the INDN's List Education Fund.''