WASHINGTON – Democrats consolidated their national gains in the Senate and House of Representatives Nov. 7 by also winning a majority of gubernatorial seats. Twenty-eight Democrats were sent to the governor’s mansions in their respective states, compared with 22 Republicans – an exact reversal of the numbers on Election Day eve.
Though the national profile of many Native issues tends to mask the importance of any one statehouse, governors are major players in the partisan political equation. With a guiding hand on state policy agendas, they influence the selection of policies that percolate up from local significance to national prominence and often set the course for future elections. They are also among the first in line for recruitment to higher office, a trend George W. Bush always had in mind and which Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico is poised to capitalize on as Hispanics come back to the Democrats after a lengthy Republican courtship faltered over immigration policy.
Besides Richardson, an advocate of tribes from his first days in Congress and in high office during the Clinton presidency, Native America has a handful of allies among the governors. One of the more interesting is Gov. Linda Lingle of Hawaii, a Republican whose own party defied her push for federal recognition of Native Hawaiians; Democrats may or may not prove more receptive in the upcoming 110th Congress, but in any case her re-election can only help the cause. And in Oklahoma, Democrat Brad Henry kept Ernest Istook, formerly in the House of Representatives, from enacting a state agenda many tribes regarded with misgivings, to put it mildly.
In nine states, Democratic governors join a Democratic-only congressional delegation. Among them are New York, Washington and Wisconsin, all with significant Indian constituencies; and Maryland, host state to no tribes but home to many Native residents at any one time.
Statehouse legislatures have a direct say in gerrymandering, the arrangement and rearrangement of local voting districts for partisan political advantage. Since 1994, Republicans have made gerrymandering a tool in their quest for a so-called permanent majority in the House of Representatives, where the impact of gerrymandering is most felt. Notwithstanding the so-called structural advantage years of gerrymandering was supposed to give the GOP in many races, Democratic candidates for the House won back, nationwide, about one in every seven votes cast for President Bush in 2004. Now that they control the statehouse in 28 states, Democrats may revisit gerrymandering in some precincts.
The National Congress of American Indians has identified 16 Native candidates newly elected Nov. 7 to the legislatures of seven states – Alaska, Arizona, Montana, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming.