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Titla continues ground-breaking campaign for Congress


PHOENIX - Overlooked in today;s political headlines, which are dominated by the battle for the White House, are many of the important ''down ballot'' races in 2008. Indian country has its eye on some of these races, which include South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson's re-election campaign, the race to fill New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici's seat, and of course, Mary Kim Titla's historic run for Congress. The Arizona Apache is trying to fill the soon-to-be empty seat of Republican Rep. Rick Renzi in Arizona.

Arizona's congressional candidates are in something of a unique position because the congressional primary elections won't take place until Sept. 2, well after most other states have had held theirs. That means that those candidates will have to raise money and fight for exposure further into the election year than their counterparts outside of Arizona - no small task, given the amount of money that the national presidential campaigns and political parties will be asking for from the same donors targeted by Titla and her rivals.

But for now, Titla, the magazine publisher and former television news reporter, is focused on her mission to become the first Native woman to serve in Congress.

''I wouldn't be in this race if I didn't think I could win,'' Titla said.

''I plan to run a strong race,'' she added. ''It's important to have the blessing of the party establishment, but it's more important to have the public's blessing.

''I'm encouraged by the energy behind this campaign. I've been embraced by voters and supporters from all walks of life. I sense the excitement when I am out campaigning.''

Titla is running in Arizona's 59,000-square-mile 1st Congressional District which is currently held by Renzi, who is retiring under an ethical cloud stemming from his involvement in a land deal.

The district is home to the Navajo Nation and the San Carlos and White Mountain Apache tribes, which should give Titla at least one advantage if her American Indian heritage appeals to Indian voters. According to state figures, Indian voters make up more than one-fifth of the votes in the district - more than enough to propel her to victory in a close race.

Should Titla advance to the general election, she would have the further advantage of running in a district where there are 32,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans.

Titla has hired Randy Camacho, a Hispanic Arizona progressive and former Democratic State Party vice chairman, to run her campaign.

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''Randy is a true visionary who has helped catapult my campaign to a whole new level. [Camacho has] the expertise we need to secure endorsements and contributions. I am better equipped to compete in what is turning into a historic race [with Camacho's leadership].''

Still, Titla's road to Congress is not easy.

She is competing in a field of strong candidates in the Democratic primary. Arizona State Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, has already emerged as one of the front-runners for the Democratic nomination. A two-term legislator and former prosecutor, Kirkpatrick was born on the White Mountain Apache Reservation. Also running is attorney Howard Shanker, who was honored by the Navajo Nation for his work to protect the San Francisco Peaks against desecration.

Renzi's 2006 opponent, attorney Ellen Simon, has said she will not run again in 2008.

However, Simon's 2006 performance sheds some light on the demands facing the first-time congressional candidate.

In the 2006 Democratic primary, Simon won 52 percent of the 38,400 votes cast in Renzi's district. Simon raised just under $300,000 before the primary but also was in a position to loan herself an additional $525,000. By the time the 2006 Democratic Primary rolled around, Simon had spent nearly $500,000 to secure her nomination and the right to take on Renzi in the general election.

So far, Titla's has raised nearly $100,000 - a figure that indicates she enjoys broad support in Arizona. Still, Titla's fundraising totals are only half those of Kilpatrick's.

Recognizing that challenge, Titla said, ''Fundraising is so very important from the get-go. It's tough to compete in the final stretch if you don't have a sizable war chest.''

For now, Titla remains an upbeat and committed candidate. Her political team, her fundraising ability, her years of public exposure on television and her natural appeal on the stump may very well take her to the House of Representatives, if she can battle through the primary first.

If Titla becomes the Democratic nominee, she will benefit from the public's desire for change. According to a recent Gallop Poll, 70 percent of those surveyed believe that America is headed in the wrong direction - an opinion that usually translates into a vote for change and favors challengers over incumbents. And while Renzi's departure leaves an open seat, voters may express their desire for change by filling the Republican-held seat with a Democrat.

Titla said she has learned a lot while on the campaign trail.

''I've grown as a person in every way - socially, mentally, spiritually and even physically. I'm more passionate now about wanting to help make a difference.''