The news spread like wildfire Dec. 1, when Rep. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., was finally declared the victor over Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., for the seat he has held for 18 years.
Washingtonians split their 2.5 million votes so evenly that an automatic recount was ordered and no official winner was named until nearly one month after the national election. When the counting was done, the challenger was elected by a mere 2,229 votes over the incumbent, who quickly conceded.
Age and money were contextual issues in the campaign. She was new-economy.
He was old guard. She had fresh ideas. He had long experience.
At 72, Gorton is senior to Cantwell by 30 years. Both are millionaires. His money is from the family fish business in Massachusetts. Hers is from stock options from a dot-com company in Seattle. He did not run on any of his own money. She spent $10 million of hers, some 25 percent of her RealNetworks fortune.
Voters in Washington elected Gorton to three terms as attorney general and sent him to the Senate three times, first in 1980. His campaign coffers were filled by the paper, energy, mining, airlines and other industries most affected by his influential committee positions. Cantwell served as a state legislator for six years and as a U.S. House member in 1993-95. Her bid for senatorial office was bolstered by Native Americans, environmentalists, women's rights advocates and others Gorton had alienated over the decades.
"Maria won," Democrats cheered. Cantwell's victory makes the party split in the Senate an even 50-50 going into the 107th Congress. She will be the 13th woman in the Senate and Washington will be the third state, after California and Maine, to be represented by two women senators.
But, for most Native people, it was "Slade lost," said more in disbelief than in jubilation.
Tribal leaders and business owners started raising money for Dump Slade 2000 last year, before Cantwell was even a contender. They viewed the campaign as a very long shot, but necessary. Gorton's track record on Native rights earned him the name Slade the Blade. Millions of tribal dollars had been spent since the 1970s fighting Gorton's persistent attempts to end tribal rights and treaties, and the fights were not getting easier.
As attorney general, Gorton advanced arguments that were the white-glove equivalent of the anti-Indian agenda of local and national hate groups, geared toward abolishing tribal sovereignty and Indian group rights. In 1979, he suffered a sharp blow when the U.S. Supreme Court held in favor of Indian treaty fishing rights and chastised Washington for its recalcitrance in honoring them.
Fresh from defeat by the high court, Gorton entered the Senate and immediately tried to achieve legislatively what he had failed to do through litigation. His early burn and slash efforts were rebuffed by senior senators, including some who agreed with him on the substance, but objected to his trampling on committee turf and protocol.
Over time, Gorton settled into the style of the Senate, where tone trumps content most days of the week. He began using the scalpel more than the machete, but was ever-focused on his task: undercutting federal Indian law.
He was gaining surgical precision, along with seniority and clout on key committees for energy and natural resources, budget and commerce, science and transportation.
After the 1996 election, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., announced that he would step down as chair of the Senate's select committee on Indian affairs. Gorton was next in line for the job. The sound of alarm from Indian country was loud and effective. Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., interceded and Gorton withdrew in favor of Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., who became the first Native American to head the Indian panel.
The senator from Washington assumed the reigns of the appropriations subcommittee that controls most of the federal Indian budget. He backed funding for Indian health, education, jobs and museum programs. Why? Because, in his view, these serve the interests of Indian people, whose individual needs he supports as civil rights of American citizens.
At the same time, he used his positions to undermine and even punish tribal governments, whose group interests he opposes as those of "super citizens." He also seldom missed a chance to champion the cause of white folks who lived on reservations, but objected to tribal laws and authority.
Gorton, whose manner is composed and courtly, wonders why his help to Indian people is not recognized. He rejects the view he has been mean-spirited, an Indian fighter or a racist to the state's 27 tribes and 100,000 adult tribal citizens.
Indian group rights were anathema to the senator and organized groups of Indians may have put him right out of office.
Soon, Native Peoples will say, "Maria won!" But, until Jan. 3, Gorton's last day in the Senate, it will be "Slade lost!"