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Tribes chart new course in campaign finance

WASHINGTON - Over the past decade, tribes have dramatically increased their presence in the national political arena.

With each new campaign season, tribes, tribal organizations and Indian people have become more involved in the political process This has not only been reflected with an increase in voter turnout, but new ventures by tribes into the realm of campaign contributions.

"We need to get out there and make sure that we're part of their agenda," said Andrew Masiel, chairman for the California Democratic Party's Native American Caucus. "To do that we have to participate on a number of levels."

Tribal governments play an influential role in many local and national elections. They meet with candidates, consider positions, attend conventions and even offer platforms for adoption, as shown recently during the Democratic National Convention in Los Angles where tribal leaders and Indian people from across the country gathered to form a national tribal caucus.

Susan Masten, president of the National Congress of American Indians and a member of the Gore campaign's platform committee, spoke before the convention's general assembly.

Although tribes have not been as warmly received by the Republican Party, some co-sponsored events at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.

While tribes now enjoy greater visibility and attention from candidates and political parties, it has not come about on its own nor has it emerged without a price tag. Tribal governments and Indian people have, over the past 10 years and even more so in the past five, been working to influence the political process in many ways, including financial contributions to candidates and political parties.

The Federal Elections Commission or FEC reported that as of June, three tribes ranked in the top 500 contributors for soft money donations in the 2000 elections cycle. The Seminole Tribe of Florida ranked 123rd, Pechanga Band of Mission Indians 372nd and Mississippi Choctaw ranked 457th . While these rankings reflect only the contributions of a few tribes, a number throughout the country contribute in some way to political campaigns.

In many cases, tribes have established tribal political action committees or PACs to mange political contributions. These may take the form of individual tribal committees, like CPAC, a political action committee of the Cherokee Nation, or regional and national committees, like CINPAC, run by California Indian tribes, and the National Unity Caucus, a committee representing tribal interests from across the country.

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Since 1996, the National Unity Caucus has contributed nearly $70,000 to some 30 campaigns, including those of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and House Democratic Minority Leader, Richard Gephart, D-Mo.

Tribes not only act through their own PACs, but sometimes participate in political fund-raisers. In June, tribes raised nearly $400,000 in funds for the Gore campaign at a luncheon in Palm Springs, Calif.

The law which provides guidelines for campaign contributions is the Federal Elections Campaign Act of 1971 and includes provisions which directly apply to tribal governments when contributing to a campaign or political party. The rules include restrictions on the amount of political contributions and the way they are allocated to candidates.

Of recent interest to tribes, candidates and political parties, was a ruling in May by the commission which eased limits on tribal campaign contributions, allowing tribes to contribute as much as they choose to campaigns each year.

The new ruling stipulates that contributions are still limited to $1,000 per election, per candidate, but there is no cap on the total amount given by a tribe to campaigns each year.

Under the law, tribes are categorized as a "person," but are not considered individuals. The commission ruled the law defines "person" as an "individual, partnership, committee, association, organization or group of persons ... ," but also has specific guidelines for individuals. In their opinion, officials ruled tribes are more likely to fall within the category of "any other organization or group of persons." Individuals are limited to $25,000 total in the amount they can contribute annually. Organizations and groups, which include tribes, are not.

The term "person" does not include the federal government or any "entity" of the federal government. While some tribes consider themselves governments, the status of a tribe as a government making a contribution has not been specifically addressed by the FEC. However, the commission has made it clear that state governments and municipal corporations are "persons" under the act and are subject to the law.

The commission ruling has come to represent a victory for some tribes with a number of congressional districts in their states and a number of other national elections to which they wish to contribute, but it may also have opened the door for many tribes to have an ever-greater influence on the national political process.

"We are here to be taken seriously," Masiel said. "We are in this for the long haul, for the interest of our people, and their future."