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Sizing Up the Vote: The Key Races and Issues Across Indian Country, Part 2

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While most of the media attention this election cycle has focused on the close presidential race between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, there are many other campaigns and issues to be decided on November 6 that promise to make things better—or worse—for Natives and tribes for years to come. There are controversial ballot initiatives on gaming in Maryland and Oregon. Tribal ID cards are being challenged in Minnesota; water rights are being hashed out in Arizona. There are Native candidates running for Congress in Nevada, Oklahoma and perhaps even Massachusetts, depending on how you feel about Elizabeth Warren’s ancestry.

Yesterday, Indian Country Today Media Network brought you the Northwest, East Coast and Midwest. Today: The Northwest, East Coast and Midwest. Today: The Pacific, Plains and Southwest.

We compile, you decide.



California is home to the largest population of American Indians and Alaska Natives in the U.S.—more than 720,000—and has 109 federally recognized tribes. Natives are just two percent of the state’s total population, so the cumulative voting power isn’t as significant as in states such as Montana and North Dakota. But tribal gaming is a huge player in California: The 60 tribal gaming operations there have helped create 52,000 jobs and $2.7 billion in income for state residents, and casino operations provide a ripple effect that puts another $7.5 billion into the state’s economy. And gaming tribes have spent a lot on politics: At least 47 California tribes have donated to President Obama’s campaign or to the Democratic National Committee in the last two years. Among them are some of the top Indian casino operators, including the Morongo Band of Mission Indians ($135,800) and the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians ($126,600). In 2008, four California gaming tribes spent more than $100 million to pass a ballot measure to expand casinos. Now tribes are wielding their considerable influence in Sacramento to oppose Assembly Bill 1290, which would make it easier to obtain a gaming license, and would directly benefit a 2008 ballot foe, the Hollywood Park Racetrack, near Los Angeles. Hollywood Park, which is not tribally owned, is the only racetrack in the state that has a card club.

Other issues on the horizon for California tribes include tribal gaming compacts, which will have to be negotiated with the governor, and a new round of debates over online gaming and sports wagering.

Only in California: This year Californians are dealing with two major political reforms that are remaking the congressional landscape and creating competitive races for the first time in decades. One established an independent citizens panel that redrew the congressional boundaries; the other created a new primary system that sends the top two vote-getters to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. This has led to some unusual campaigns: for example, Democratic State Senator Gloria Negrete McLeod (D) is running to unseat U.S. Representative Joe Baca (D) in the general election.

Tribal Recognition: Some 78 tribes in California are currently petitioning for federal recognition. The designation is crucial to the state’s Indians, as California has no formal state-recognition policy.

Key Race: 45th District, Representative Mary Bono Mack (R) vs. Raul Ruiz (D)

This race has piqued the interest of Indian country. Mack, who is in a dead heat with Ruiz, put out a series of ads, campaign tweets and a press release indicating that Ruiz is anti-American for his past support of causes identified with American Indians. Ruiz, who is not Native, was arrested in 1997 during a National Day of Mourning protest in Plymouth, Massachusetts led by United American Indians of New England. Charges were later dropped, and Ruiz says he has no regrets about his actions. He told Indian Country Today Media Network: “I really believe in our Native American history. They are our first Americans and we owe them a lot of respect, and I wanted to express my pride in our Native American past.”

Key Race: San Bernardino County Third District Supervisor, Supervisor Neil Derry (R) vs. James Ramos (D)

This bitterly fought race will be settled in a runoff election November 6. Ramos, former San Manuel Band of Mission Indians chairman, has hammered away at charges of corruption surrounding Derry—last year, Derry pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of failing to report a campaign contribution, and two felony charges brought by the state attorney general’s office were dismissed. Derry has questioned Ramos’s business experience (his attempts to get into the coffee business in 2008 were not successful) and his commitment to all county residents, not just Native Americans. In what Ramos is calling racially charged statements, Derry has called Ramos a “casino boss” and said, “He’s basically depended on a welfare check from Indian gaming for his entire life.”


A Growing Voice: For the first time, the elections for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board of Trustees will be open to all voters, not just Native Hawaiians. It took a Supreme Court ruling to force this change: Rice v. Cayetano. More than half of the Native Hawaiian population lives in just two states: Hawaii (356,000) and California (286,000). This population grew by 40 percent from 2000 to 2010 in the U.S., and their growing voice should have an impact on pending legislation introduced by retiring longtime senator and Native Hawaiian Senator Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) that would extend federal recognition to Native Hawaiians, which would put them on equal footing with American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Opposites Do Attract: The most important race in Hawaii is the battle to fill Akaka’s seat. Republicans have a strong candidate: former state governor Linda Lingle, but Alaska representative Don Young has endorsed her Democratic opponent, Mazie Hirono, who is Native Hawaiian. Young, chair of the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, even filmed a TV ad with Hirono.



Voter ID Versus Tribal Identification Card: On Election Day voters will be asked if the state should require all voters to present valid photo identification. Many Indians are concerned that the vague wording of the amendment may lead to tribal IDs being rejected as legal identification. In 2004, about 200 tribal members were turned away from the polls—Mary Kiffmeyer, then secretary of state, ruled tribal IDs were not a form of legal identification for voting. The National Congress of American Indians, the ACLU and Native plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against Kiffmeyer and the state, and won. Since her 2008 election to the Minnesota House of Representatives Kiffmeyer (R-Big Lake) has sponsored two voter-ID bills that were vetoed by governor. In August, the ACLU lost its argument that the amendment is misleading and unclear, and the state Supreme Court upheld it as written.


Betting Against 23: There are 20 tribally owned casinos and bingo halls and three privately owned casinos in Michigan, and the Detroit Free Press says private investors and Indian tribes are looking to build 22 new casinos, even though a poll suggests 60 percent of voters are opposed to more gaming operations in the state.

Michigan law limits the number of non-Indian casinos to three and a proposal that would have added eight more was struck from the Election Day ballot by the state Supreme Court.


Nobody Likes Asian Carp: Environment officials are working hard to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. The issue is so worrisome that it surfaced during a debate on September 28 between Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate candidates, former Republican governor Tommy Thompson and Democratic representative Tammy Baldwin. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said Thompson showed “real passion” on the subject and was “adamant that authorities need to put in a barrier to stop the invasive species from wreaking havoc on the Great Lakes.” The newspaper noted that concern for the Great Lakes was “shared by his opponent.… ”


Tribes Want Early Voting: Members of the Northern Cheyenne, Crow and Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes filed a voting-rights lawsuit in federal court October 10 because officials do not plan to provide the reservations with satellite offices for early voting, which started October 9 in the state.

Steve Bullock, the state’s attorney general, told the secretary of state on August 17 that setting up an early-voting office is optional. Only Glacier County chose to offer early-voting access to the Blackfeet Nation.

Traveling to the county seats to vote can be a long trip for many of the Northern Cheyenne, often more than 100 miles, said O.J. Semans, the Lakota head of Four Directions, a national voting-rights nonprofit. He added that online, e-mail and faxed ballots aren’t an option since most Native people don’t have access to such technology. “Right now, practically speaking, most American Indians in Montana have one day to vote in person—November 6—and no more days to late-register. White people have 20 days. That’s not equal access.”

Juneau Faces Competition: Back in 2008, Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, a Democrat, was the first American Indian woman elected to a statewide executive office. A few months ago, she was a star speaker at the Democratic National Convention, and now it’s time to defend her job against challenger Republican Sandy Welch, an education consultant and former principal who started her education career as a math teacher.

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Juneau, Mandan and Hidatsa, says she’s proud of what she has accomplished during her first term—according to and other news outlets, graduation rates have increased and student achievement scores are among the highest in the country.

The two disagree on a number of issues. Welch would support charter schools; Juneau supports the current teacher tenure system whereas Welch thinks it needs reforming. Juneau cites the changing economy as the greatest challenge facing public education and she says kids need to have new skills for the 21st century, including technology. Welch thinks schools need to focus more on basics like reading, writing and math.

South Dakota

Key Race: House Seat, Representative Kristi Noem (R) vs. Matt Varilek (D)

This battle is for South Dakota’s lone U.S. House seat. Noem is a member of the Native American Caucus and on her website she says, “I also introduced tribal sovereignty legislation to clarify that the National Labor Relations Board does not have jurisdiction over tribally owned businesses on reservation land.”

Varilek says Noem missed 17 out of 22 meetings of the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs. His site says: “Ending the cycle of poverty in Indian country must be a top priority, along with working to ensure that the United States upholds its treaty and trust responsibilities to American Indian tribes.”



Key Race: Senate, Jeff Flake (R) vs. Richard Carmona (D)

The polls say this is a very close race. Carmona, U.S. Surgeon General under George W. Bush, appears tailor-made to appeal to the state’s historically Democratic Natives, who are five percent of the state’s electorate. But will they vote?

Key Race: Sheriff, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (R) vs. Paul Penzone (D)

Penzone is giving Arpaio, the controversial Maricopa County sheriff, the closest race he has had since becoming sheriff 20 years ago. Arpaio has made headlines with his anti-immigration and “tough-on-crime” policies that include keeping inmates in tents outside the jailhouse.

Native Water Rights: Navajo and Hopi tribal leaders are still working to salvage pieces of the Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement Act of 2012, which touched off protests last spring. The Navajo Nation Council voted it down. The Navajo and Hopi interests in the Little Colorado River, for now, fall back into the realm of Arizona tribal water claims that are likely to be decided in court.

Water settlements have been reached in Arizona for the Ak-Chin Indian Community, the Tohono O’odham Nation, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, the San Carlos Apache Tribe, the Yavapai Prescott Indian Tribe, the Zuni Tribe and the Gila River Indian Community. Pending settlement negotiations involve claims by the White Mountain Apache, the Yavapai-Apache, the Havasupai, Hualapai, Kaibab Paiute and one district at Tohono O’odham.

Tribes with water claims that aren’t yet in negotiation include the Pascua Yaqui, San Carlos Apache, San Juan Southern Paiute and Tonto Apache.

New Mexico

A New Immigration Debate

Since 57 percent of the state’s population identified as Hispanic/Latino (47 percent) or American Indian (10 percent) on the 2010 census, state leaders usually place a high value on inclusion and tolerance. New Mexico and Washington are the only two states that offer a driver’s license to undocumented immigrants.

That policy has been a political battle in recent years as New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez (R) wants to repeal the law, arguing that criminals might come there from other states for licenses. Laurie Weahkee, director of the Albuquerque-based Native American Voters Alliance, says undocumented immigrants who have a driver’s license can purchase car insurance and are more likely to stick around after an accident to file a police report because they don’t have to be afraid of being harassed by the police.

The driver’s license policy is expected to come up again in the next session of the state legislature.


Swing Away: Nevada, which is considered to be one of nine swing states, has a Native population of nearly 44,000. Nevada, like Arizona, is seeing a shift the balance of power—Latinos are now 15 percent of the voters, and accounted for more than half of all new voters in the state in the past decade.

Key Race: Third District, Representative Joe Heck (R) vs. John Oceguera (D)

The race for the Third District seat is close. Oceguera, Walker River Paiute Tribe, supports the Violence Against Women Act; Heck has not talked directly about VAWA, but has opposed funding for rape-crisis centers.


Until 2010, Colorado hadn’t had both a Democratic governor and a majority in both houses for 50 years. The current election offers the possibility of a Democratic sweep—Governor John Hickenlooper is a Democrat, Republicans are down five seats in the Senate, and Democrats lack only one seat to retake the House and gain control of the General Assembly.

Key Race: Third District, U.S. Representative Scott Tipton (R) vs. State Representative Sal Pace (D)

Colorado’s 40,000 Indian voters could be important in a few contests, including western Colorado’s Third District, home of the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Tribes. They seem to agree on some issues particularly important to Indians—both support the Native American Tuition Waiver at [Fort Lewis College] and other American Indian-serving institutions. Both support the provisions in Obamacare that increase health services for Indians nationwide.

Key Race: Sixth District, U.S. Representative Mike Coffman (R) vs. State Representative Joe Miklosi (D)

Polls had this contest a dead heat two weeks before the election. Miklosi says he would work with urban Indians to ensure access to “quality education, health care, and economic opportunity.” He supports many parts of the Affordable Care Act and is “concerned about the epidemic of diabetes in our communities.”

Incumbents are largely favored in other congressional races, including representatives Diana DeGette, Democrat, First District, who has been vigilant in her support for research into the causes, prevention and cure for diabetes. As co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Diabetes Caucus she is a strong advocate for the expansion of diabetes care and research.