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Vote 2002 analysis: In an evenly divided country, the American Indian vote can tip the balance

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PINE RIDGE, S. D. - Whatever Democrats might say about the 2002 midterm election, it marked a giant step forward in American Indian political power. Reservation voters and their sympathizers showed clearly they now have the ability to reward and punish.

Unlike the ambiguity surrounding the defeat of U. S. Sen. Slade Gorton in Washington State in 2000, U. S. Sen. Tim Johnson, D- S.D., clearly owed his 528-vote margin to late returns from the Pine Ridge reservation. Casino-friendly incumbents in New York and the Northeast, New York Gov. George Pataki, U. S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R- NY 24th District, Conn. Gov. John Rowland and U. S. Rep. Rob Simmons, R- Conn. 2nd District, easily won re-election.

On the downside, three U. S. Senators who supported the Dodd amendment to suspend federal tribal recognition, suffered severely. U. S. Sen. Jean Carnahan, D - Mo., and U. S. Sen. Max Cleland, D - Ga., lost their seats by narrow margins and U. S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D - La., fell short of 50 percent and under her state's peculiar system, now faces a run-off on Dec. 5. Since the Dodd amendment drew only 15 votes, these defeats wiped out a large proportion of the supporters up for re-election.

One clear pattern, in fact, was that anti-Indian Democrats lost. New York State Controller H. Carl McCall, who called for state taxation of reservation business, finished a poor second in the governor race with 33 percent of the vote. Indian leaders were confused as to why McCall was so out of step with New York's esteemed congressman, Charles Rangel, who has been a stalwart defender of Indian sovereignty.

In the same race, Independent candidate Thomas Golisano circulated even more strident attacks on Indian businesses and received only 16 percent of the vote, after spending $60 million of his own money. Linked to Galisano's campaign was political operative Roger Stone. Stone was previously associated with Donald Trump, when a little more than two years ago they split payment of a record fine levied by the New York Temporary State Commission on Lobbying. As reported by ICT at the time, Stone's company, Ikon Public Affairs, paid $100,000 and Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts Inc. paid $50,000 of a $250,000 civil penalty for a series of ads attacking the St. Regis Mohawk tribal council. The ads had the impact of smearing tribal leadership in an effort to abort potential gaming compacts.

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Republicans who hurt Indian interests appeared to fare better than Democrats. John Cornyn, who as Texas Attorney General closed down the Tigua and Alabama-Coushatta casinos, won election to the U. S. Senate by a healthy margin, in spite of early assessments that his race might be close. Republicans added a new Indian face to the House of Representatives with the election of Tom Cole, Chickasaw, in Oklahoma's Fourth District, but Cole, owner of a right-leaning political consulting firm, is regarded as less friendly to tribal sovereignty than to the Republican platform.

Tribal officials in Oklahoma breathed a sigh of relief over the election as governor of Democratic State Sen. Brad Henry over former U. S. Rep. Steve Largent, the Republican former football player. Likewise in Maine, the often-beleaguered tribes welcomed the election as governor of Democratic U. S. Rep. John Baldacci.

Tribal leaders in several states are also headed to their state legislatures. In Montana, Jonathan Windy Boy appeared headed to victory both for the state legislature and the Rocky Boy's Reservation tribal council. In Washington State, John McCoy, Democrat and member of the Tulalip Tribe, also took the lead.

Gaming initiatives in Idaho and Arizona also set the stage for expansion of Indian economies. Idaho's Proposition One held the lead. Proposition 202, supported by 17 Arizona tribes, also appeared to hold a narrow majority, as two other competing measures lost decisively; it presages a new round of compact negotiations with Gov. Jane Hull.

Perhaps the most telling acknowledgement of the rising Indian vote were the charges in several states that Republican party workers were trying to discourage turn-out by raising election fraud charges. In addition to a widely publicized flap in South Dakota, similar complaints arose in Arizona on the Navajo reservation. But Native voters refused to be intimidated, turning out in record numbers.