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Tribes cheer Gorton ouster

OLYMPIA, Wash. - Ecstatic. Overjoyed. Jubilant. Thrilled. Pale words in comparison to tribal reaction over Democrat Maria Cantwell's defeat of Republican incumbent Slade Gorton in Washington's Senate race.

With a final lead of only 1,953 votes, Secretary of State Ralph Munro declared an automatic recount which must be completed by Dec. 7. With Florida as an ever-present example, Cantwell has refused to officially tout herself winner until the recount is official.

Gorton seems to have bowed to the inevitable. Unless there is a substantial shift in the recount numbers in Washington, Gorton watchers predict the senator will refuse a manual recount - a process which would have to be paid for out of his own pocket.

So far a recount has never overturned a senate election in Washington state.

Tribes and Indian-run organizations such as the First American Education Project felt no such restraint in declaring victory over Gorton, well known in tribal circles as "the old Indian fighter."

"For us to have targeted the number one nemesis for Indians and defeated him ... defeated a 42 year veteran is a huge victory," says Ron Allen, Jamestown S'Klallam tribal chairman and head of the First American Education Project. "A whole lot of parties contributed to this victory. But clearly the Indians can claim a major contribution to his defeat. We believe firmly if the Indians stayed home, like they normally do, there would have been a big problem."

In a see-saw race from start to finish, tribal members stayed glued to election-night coverage, then patiently followed endless days of absentee ballot counting. When the final tally was in, the waiting seemed worth it, they said.

"It's just so exciting and so close," says Francene Ambrose, a Yakama student at the University of Washington. "We've all been waiting so long for the final count to come in. I'm part of AISES (American Indian Science and Engineering Society) and I was in Portland and we were calling people in Seattle to see what the count was. That's how much it matters."

"It's the best thing I heard in this whole election fiasco," says Maria Gouley, acting tribal manager of the Skokomish tribe. "I was holding my breath."

Certainly Election 2000 proved itself to be a significant moment in Indian history. The Washington Senate race united Indians in a common national political cause. More than 45 tribes around the country contributed directly to the First American Education Project and their non-partisan educational media campaign exposing Gorton's not-so-shiny environmental track record to western Washington's voting populace.

Tribes also contributed to both the Washington state Democratic Party and directly to Cantwell's campaign.

By taking on Gorton, tribes took the reins of power into their own hands and utilized the democratic process to make a positive difference.

"Hopefully we're not going to have to worry about many of the riders that were constantly being put on bills or having to feel the pressure over sovereignty issues and funding issues," says Pearl Capoeman-Baller, chairwoman of the Quinault tribe. "(With Gorton) you can just about name every issue and feel like, for one reason or another, we were being held hostage to something, whether it was land, Indian trust or whatever."

In boldly making their stand, tribes also affected the political balance of Congress and even tipped the scales toward a more coalition-based administration. With the Senate split evenly between Republican and Democratic parties, cabinet appointments such as attorney general and secretary of Interior will now, by necessity, go to candidates that can win support from both sides.

But if fear of Gorton in his position as chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Interior Appropriations kept many tribes from officially jumping on the "Dump Slade" bandwagon, the specter of ousting Gorton only to see him rise to even greater heights of power in a Republican administration has had equal impact.

With the Bush camp beginning its transition stage to power, speculation is flying. With Bush elected and Gorton freed up, what might the future bring?

"He's been one of Bush's top environmental advisers," says Ryan Wilson, vice president of the National Indian Education Association. "We would be naive to think that he is not on some sort of short list."

Short list or not, many tribal representatives say Bush is simply not in a position to tread on minority toes this early in his presidential career. Without a mandate from the public and tarnished by the uncertainty of the Florida electoral process, most see Bush's path as one of coalition-building. They also expect he will stick to the GOP platform which upholds tribal sovereignty.

"Anybody controversial that is going to be selected is going to go through a highly scrutinized review process by the authorizing committees," says Allen. "Somebody like Slade Gorton would never get confirmed as secretary of Interior. ... The Indians, the environmentalist groups, they'd go ballistic over that kind of consideration. Same thing for the attorney general position."

Allen says sources in Washington, D.C., reveal that Gorton is considered a prime candidate for a "plum" ambassadorship and that the senator is not unwilling to consider such a position should one be offered.

The idea of Gorton in Beijing or Paris would hardly be met with dismay by many camps.

Anticipating final victory, the First American Education Project is organizing a national press conference honoring tribes and tribal representatives who made an early stand against Gorton in the election process.

"Talk about leadership, that's leadership," says Russ Lehman, managing director of FAEP. "Hopefully this will help defeat the kind of fear that was in Indian country prior to the election.

"Maybe it will give courage to Oklahoma tribes next year to say "Damnit, we're going after Istook (Rep. Ernest Istook Jr.), and we don't care what he does to us because he's already done it to us.

"If this helps give that courage, then that's just fantastic."

The press conference, scheduled at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Dec. 7, will honor only those tribes and individuals who grant permission for their names to be released to the public. So far, says Lehman, no one has refused.