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Public education, voter turnout even scales in U.S. Senate

WASHINGTON - After a tight race which went down to the wire in Washington state, the U.S. Senate stands even at 50 members for each party, leaving Republicans and Democrats without the majority required to control the body's agenda during the upcoming session set to begin in January.

A major factor in bringing about the shift away from a Republican majority was the defeat of Republican Slade Gorton by Democrat Maria Cantwell in a race decided by slightly more than 2,000 votes.

What many experts say contributed to that defeat was involvement by tribes within the state in educating the public about the record of Sen. Gorton on tribal and environmental issues and, ultimately, an increase in tribal voter turnout throughout the state.

Tribes and tribal organizations like the First American Education Project, a non-profit public education organization founded by a group of tribal leaders, have increased efforts to impact the political process through voter education and registration.

"The purpose was to raise the debate," said Russ Lehmen, managing director of the project. "The tribes initiated the effort by getting tribal communities energized and getting people out to vote. Our success was phenomenal."

Coordinated efforts by tribes in Washington state included political ads in newspapers and political spots in important television markets across the state. Many of the ads and spots outlined issues important to tribes and the record of Slade Gorton on tribal and environmental issues.

"Indian people can play the political game as well," said Ron Allen, chairman of the project and of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe.

"When we look at the Gorton-Cantwell election we see that we made a difference. If those voters would have stayed home, Gorton would have been elected to his fourth term."

With election results as close as they were, the issue of voter turnout is in the spot light with election analysts and the public at large focusing greater attention on who actually came out to vote. The election was decided by 2,229 votes, leaving many to ponder what factors ultimately made the difference.

A preliminary analysis of voter registration and turnout among Native Americans in Washington state conducted by the project shows and average turnout of 69.9 percent of registered voters, an increase of some 4,640 voters over the 1996 level.

This increased turnout was reflected by tribal communities across the state. For the Colville Tribe, voter turnout rose from 63 percent in 1996 to 66 percent in 2000. For the Lummi tribe, voter turnout increased from 60 percent to 61 percent and at Swinomish, voter turnout jumped from 23 percent to 80 percent.

Tribal communities are not far behind the average voter turnout in the state of 75 percent, and are making dramatic leaps forward in a number of communities.

"We have shown that we made a huge difference," Allen said. "The importance of increasing public awareness is best illustrated by the actions of Slade Gorton. Whether it was his zealous representation against Washington state tribes' fishing rights, his attempt at punishing the Lummi tribe by reducing their federal appropriations by fifty percent because of his close relationship with a local property rights group in a dispute with the tribe, or his proposals to destroy the right to self-governance, Gorton has appeared to have been on a personal mission against Indian country."

Maria Cantwell is expected to set a new agenda with regard to tribes and tribal leaders are preparing for her arrival in the Senate. Allen says Cantwell plans to meet with tribal leadership very soon and that she has indicated that "her door will always be open."

"She came out strong on sovereignty and treaty rights," Allen said. " I expect her to be a friend in the Senate."