Will Indian country vote?

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TULALIP, Wash. – On a cloudy and breezy Saturday afternoon, the Tulalip tribes hosted a statewide rally to mobilize the American Indian vote in the upcoming federal and state elections this Nov. 7. The Native Vote rally was organized by Washington’s 29 tribes and the National Congress of American Indian’s Native Vote 2006 campaign. The rally, held Oct. 14, drew more than 300 attendees from across the state, according to organizers.

The message that tribal leaders and Indian political candidates delivered was that “your vote makes a difference.” Headlining the rally were well-known tribal leaders such as Chairman Ron Allen of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, President Fawn Sharp of the Quinault Indian Nation and Chairman Stan Jones of the Tulalip Tribes, as well as “Northern Exposure” actress Elaine Miles, Cayuse/Nez Perce; Washington State Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz; and Craig Bill, Swinomish, director of the Washington State Office of Indian Affairs.

Allen, who is also the NCAI’s treasurer, said that he is proud of the Native Vote campaign. “I think it’s going well when you put it into perspective over the past six to eight years. We have expanded into more states, hosted more Get Out The Vote rallies, and educated the public about the power of our vote. You’ve seen us grow from being motivated to vote by anti-Indian candidates like Slade Gorton to being motivated to vote because we know we can make a difference.”

The ability to make that difference was the motivation behind the rally. Despite the fact that American Indians make up only 1.9 percent of the state’s population, the Native voting influence across the state is strong. The First American Education Project and the NCAI issued a report in 2004 estimating that there are more than 100,000 Indians who are eligible to vote in the state of Washington.

In terms of actual registered voters, the numbers and turnout still vary within the state. The FAEP and NCAI report analyzed precinct returns in the 2004 election and found that 71 percent of registered Lummi voters participated in the 2004 election. On the other hand, 51 percent of registered Quinault voters went to the polls in 2004. What these numbers indicate, however, is that Indian voters in the state are dependable voters.

The question that remains is which parties and which candidates will Indian voters respond to. Traditionally, Indian voters have tended to vote for Democratic candidates over Republicans. In 2004, Craig Bill led the Washington Democratic Party’s efforts to persuade Indians to vote for then-Attorney General Christine Gregoire, who was running for governor.

Bill identified target Indian voting populations of 26,600 living on the state’s 10 largest Indian reservations, 46,500 living in the state’s 10 largest counties and 10,500 living in the state’s five largest cities. His efforts to reach those voters paid off when Gregoire won the gubernatorial election by a razor-thin margin of 129 votes.

Today, Republican and Democratic parties are both trying to capture the Native vote. Both parties agree that the target American Indian voting population in the state for 2006 is around 30,000 voters.

In a statewide race such as Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell’s re-election bid this year against Republican challenger Mike McGavick, a sizeable American Indian voter turnout can easily mean the difference between victory and defeat.

In fact, that is exactly the point that two-term state Rep. John McCoy, D-District 38, made at the rally. McCoy is a member of the Tulalip tribes and runs the tribal business center. He reminded the audience that “you can’t forget that you elected Christine Gregoire to the governor’s office by 129 votes and you put Maria Cantwell in the Senate in 2000 over [former Sen.] Slade Gorton by 2,229 votes. Every vote counts.”

McCoy, who himself is running for re-election this fall, has a strategy for driving more Indians to the polls. “Now our test is to get more Natives running for office.” McCoy believes that when Indian candidates run for office they motivate other Indians to go to the polls.

One of those Indians is Glen Pinkham, Yakama Nation member and Democratic candidate for state representative for the 15th legislative district in south-central Washington. Pinkham is hoping that his message of education funding, drought prevention and job creation will help draw in crossover Republican voters and carry him to victory. While his campaign is mostly self-funded, he is hoping to benefit from the recent Democratic surge reflected in national polls on Iraq, the president’s popularity and generic congressional ballot preference.

Pinkham’s district covers three counties and includes the Yakama Reservation. He faces an uphill battle against incumbent Republican Bruce Chandler. Chandler drew nearly double the amount of votes that Pinkham did in the primary. And the 15th District leans heavily Republican, and its congressman, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., is predicted to coast to re-election. Yet Pinkham probably only needs to pick up an additional 5,000 votes in the general election to win, a feat that may be possible in the current political climate – especially if Pinkham can motivate a large number of the estimated 6,000 Yakima voters to register and vote on Nov. 7.

Even 3,000 Yakama votes, in a tight statewide race, can make a huge difference. Thus, finding the staff and resources to court votes such as the Yakama’s is becoming part of the new political reality in the state.

While the Republican Party has yet to create an American Indian program in the state, the Democratic Party hired Renee Swan-Waite, a member of the Lummi Nation, to mobilize the Native Vote this year.

At the rally, Swan-Waite wore a “Native Americans for Maria Cantwell” T-shirt and handed out fliers asking Natives to re-elect Cantwell. The campaign flier points out that Cantwell’s opponent, businessman Mike McGavick, was once the campaign manager and chief of staff for Gorton, the man that the Native vote is credited with defeating in 2000.

Also at rally was NCAI’s regional Native Vote coordinator, Amy Pivetta Hoffman, a policy analyst for the Washington Indian Gaming Association. Hoffman organized the Oct. 14 Native Vote rally along with Deborah Parker George and Theresa Sheldon, who both work as policy analysts for the Tulalip tribes.

Hoffman explained their motivation for creating the rally: “Our group operates under the idea that voting is an act of respect. Respect for those who have gone before and those who will come after. It is an act of respect for those who made substantial sacrifices for the Indian right to vote. It is also an act of respect for veterans, the environment, and children.”