Forgotten Once More? Presidential Candidates Yet to Campaign in Indian Country

By Rob  Capriccioso – June 15, 2012

By this time in the 2008 presidential campaign, President Barack Obama was an  adopted member of the Crow Nation of Montana, smiling and hugging his new  parents, Sonny and Mary Black Eagle. Jodi Gillette, of the Standing Rock Sioux,  Wizipan Garriott, of the Rosebud Sioux, and other Natives were out canvassing  for him all around Indian country. A real Native network had taken shape, and  many, including Gillette and Garriott, were later rewarded with jobs in the  administration. Obama’s rival, John McCain, former chair of the U.S. Senate  Committee on Indian Affairs, had reached out to tribal leaders, asking them not  to blindly vote for the Democrat. When McCain picked Alaska Governor Sarah Palin  as his running mate, his camp eagerly reminded Indian voters that her husband,  Todd, and her children were of Alaska Native descent.

All the right words were flowing. “I know what it’s like to not always have  been respected or to have been ignored and I know what it’s like to struggle and  that’s how I think many of you understand what’s happened here on the  reservation,” then-Senator Obama told hundreds of Crow citizens in a speech on  their reservation on May 19, 2008. “A lot of times you have been forgotten, just  like African Americans have been forgotten, or other groups in this country have  been forgotten.” He and his team vowed that every vote in Indian country  mattered, and if they voted for him, he would bring them change they could  believe in.

In 2012, Native Americans across the land are wondering where on Earth—or in  America, at least—the outreach has been from the presidential campaigns. For an  election that is forecasted to be quite close—closer by the day, according to  the most recent polls—in battleground states where Native populations, though  comparatively small, could tip the scale. “This will probably be a very close  election, and neither campaign should ignore any group of voters, especially one  that is reliably supportive,” says Daniel McCool, a political science professor  at the University of Utah and co-author of the 2007 book Native Vote:  American Indians, the Voting Rights Act, and the Right to  Vote.

Obama realized the opportunity early on in 2008, but Indian votes appear to  be less important to him this time around. As of June 14, his Chicago camp  hadn’t formally named an official Native vote coordinator or hierarchy, while  operations to court African-American, Latino, Asian, Jewish, gay, and women  voters were already established. His campaign website in 2008 had many Native  blog posts and tribal endorsements. This year, nothing yet.

That said, Obama has been hustling for Indian dollars like no other  presidential candidate in history. In January, Indian Country Today Media  Network reported  that 70 tribal donors had attended a private meet-and-greet with the  president, where the minimum donation started at $15,000, and many gave $35,800,  the maximum allowed by law. A campaign official said at the time that Vice  President Joe Biden had hosted a similar event with Natives in October 2011. USA Today reported in mid-May that tribal governments  had so far donated more than $1 million to his campaign and his joint  fundraising efforts with the Democratic National Committee, while they gave only  $264,000 to him in 2008.

The invitation to the winter event, which Obama attended for less than 30  minutes, billed the affair as co-hosted by the Native American Leadership  Committee. But no one on the Obama campaign could name the members of that  committee. In the days since, it has become clear that Keith Harper, a Cherokee  lawyer with Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, is the main Obama campaign  Native finance go-to man. He has been doing the job for months, even as he  worked as a lawyer representing Indian interests in the famous $3.4 billion Cobell settlement, which was announced by the administration in  December 2009, soon after Harper served on the Obama transition team. The  overlap and inherent conflicts there—advocating for both the Indian interests  involved in the case, as well as for the Obama administration and its campaign  interests—are obvious. In an e-mail exchange with ICTMN in February, Harper  insisted that no tribal lobbyists attended the winter fundraiser, despite the  fact that he had been registered as a tribal lobbyist in 2008, helped coordinate  the event and was seen attending at least some portions of it. “It is no secret  that I am a supporter of President Obama and I will do anything within my  (albeit limited) power to help his re-election,” Harper e-mailed. “Why? I  believe there is no serious argument that President Obama is the most pro-tribal  President in the history of the U.S. and that includes President Nixon.”

Indeed, Obama has a strong record to campaign on in Indian country, including  the passage of the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act as  part of his larger healthcare legislation in 2010, several billion dollars in  trust settlement announcements, the support for and passage of the Tribal Law  and Order Act, and three major annual White House meetings with tribal leaders  to date. And that just makes the lack of outreach to Native voters, the tribal  citizens, all the more perplexing.

“In 2008 Obama had almost no track record [in Indian country] and was running  against John McCain, who has been—especially among post-Nixon Republicans—a  strong ally of tribal communities,” says Tol Foster, a professor of Native  literature at Marquette University. “For his years of service and record of  concrete accomplishments, not to mention his martial honors in war, I think many  elders were predisposed to McCain in states that could have shifted the  election, such as New Mexico.” So maybe that’s why Obama feels he doesn’t need  to be chasing Indian votes this time around. And maybe that makes sense, but in  what promises to be a close election, it still seems risky, especially given  that the Obama team has successfully danced with Natives before—and won.

Blackfeet Nation citizen Gyasi Ross, who worked for the Obama campaign in  Montana in 2008, argues that the president has indeed reached out to Natives by  staying in constant contact with tribal leaders. “The Obama campaign has engaged  in the most effective form of campaigning: they’ve done what they said that they  were going to do, and stayed constantly engaged with Indian country,” says Ross,  a lawyer with the Crowell Law Office. “In 2008, if you recall, Obama went from a  heated primary to a heated general, and so the transition was seamless. This  time, there was no primary, therefore it appears that things are starting a bit  later, but they’re not—the administration’s stump speech to Indian people has  been through its actions.”

With Romney, there are plenty of unknowns. Nothing specifically about tribes  or Indians has come out of his campaign so far. Two recent Republican  presidents, Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush, were likewise unknown in their  Indian and tribal positions early on during their campaigns, but got some  policies very right for Indians; recent GOPers, especially George W. Bush and a  crop of Tea Partiers in the current U.S. Congress, have gotten some things very  wrong, such as when Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, last  year proposed eliminating the Bureau of Indian Affairs and slashing the  Indian Health Service budget by half.

“Romney comes from New England, which has become the most hostile region to  tribal sovereignty in the past decade, and one of his first proposals as  Massachusetts governor was to try to threaten out-of-state Indian tribes into  plugging the state’s budget gap,” notes Foster, a Mvskoke Creek Nation citizen.  A 2003 article in Governing magazine, titled Raid the Reservation, quotes Romney as  saying to nearby out-of-state tribes, “If they refuse to provide at least $75  million to us, then we will engage in video lottery terminals of our own.” The  governor ultimately gave up on this tribal shakedown, but it suggests he isn’t  going to be much of a friend to Natives.

Indian country players close to the Romney camp say that it has reached out  to Natives on get-out-the-vote efforts (GOTV) and plans are apparently in place  to post a tribal policy position on his website, but details have been scarce. Much more is  known about what the Obama campaign’s overarching GOTV organization looks like,  and many Natives see some strong places for them to fit in. Case in point, the  Democratic Party and Obama recently rolled out something called “the dashboard,” which is what they call a real-time electronic way for individuals to connect  with each other and download and upload demographics to the Democratic Party. “It’s pretty staggering, and I don’t think Romney will have anything like it  this year,” says Chris Stearns, a Navajo lawyer with Hobbs Straus Dean &  Walker. “The new technology allows the campaign to micro-target households and  individuals in swing districts, counties, and neighborhoods. With this  dashboard, Activist X should be able to create and read out a walking list of  door-to-door contacts they could hit in an evening, and at the same time, the  Party would know that, too, and have the results of Activist X’s evening  doorbelling.”

Stearns says a key in Native voter outreach will be whether the campaigns can  expand their outreach beyond the traditional tribal leader endorsements,  rallies, feeds and yard signs. “There is an overwhelming push to take advantage  of the digital power in peoples’ laptops, cell phones, and through social  media,” he says. “The question is whether Indian country’s lack of digital  infrastructure will leave them behind.”

In 2008, Stearns used an earlier version of the dashboard canvassing software  in Washington state to hone in on Native voters. “It could identify Native  households in Seattle and elsewhere and we could send out people to target  neighborhoods already armed with information of who was in their house, voting  history, and number of previous contacts,” he recalls. “The problem is that  someone has to enter that data in the first place. Most of it comes from the  Secretary of State, but that is old [data] sometimes, and it has to be  supplemented by Party data collected on-line, at caucuses and primaries, and  through volunteers. There are just some huge data gaps, however, on what has  been collected and what will be collected in Indian country. I think that is the  challenge this year.”

Efforts by the National Congress of American Indians, which rolled out its  Native Vote campaign earlier this year, are expected to fill some of those gaps,  as well as use more traditional methods. It has already issued a public service  announcement with the tagline, “Be the Native Vote,” which features multi-tribal  Native actor Chaske Spencer, best known for his role in the Twilight  Saga, in an effort to engage  young Indian voters.

Another challenge for Indians in getting attention from the campaigns is that  of the key battleground states identified thus far—Colorado, Florida, Iowa,  Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin—only in that  last state are there substantial numbers of Indians. But even in the  battleground states with fewer Native voters, even a slight edge on one  reservation could make a difference. Virginia alone has 11 state recognized  tribes, some of which aren’t all that far from Washington, D.C.

Money will still be paramount, and while the richest tribes have started out  making strong contributions to Obama’s campaign, many tribes simply cannot  afford to give much. And no tribe—rich or poor—can compete with the super PACs  pumping millions into the campaign. “There is no way that tribes, or anyone  else, can compete with the level of money that these well-funded interests will  throw into the political process,” McCool told  ICTMN last year.


In recent days, the Obama campaign seemed to realize that it has a lot of  work to do in Indian country. As of press time, it was scheduled to host a  day-long Native American strategy session on June 15. “This is for the worker  bees; next month they will be holding a national tribal leaders meeting,” says  Theresa Sheldon, a Tulalip citizen who has long been involved in Native voting  efforts. The invite-only affair is said to feature senior  campaign officials who will work to develop an Indian GOTV plan. Lona Wilbur, a  Swinomish citizen, was expected to be in attendance. She is one of the few  Native Democratic super-delegates in the nation. Cecelia Fire Thunder, of the  Oglala Sioux, and Todd Goodman, a Caddo citizen, are also super-delegates as  members of the Democratic National Committee. (from 2008 Frank LaMere, of the  Winnebago Tribe, was not reappointed in Nebraska, nor was Kalyn Free, a Choctaw  citizen in Oklahoma.) In April, the campaign also started spreading the word  that it planned to hire a Native American outreach person in Washington state,  which is another positive sign, although it hasn’t been announced if that spot  has been filled, or whether there are similar positions being hired in other  states.

The hope of many is that this overdue powwow signifies that the Obama camp is  finally ready to match or even outdo their 2008 efforts in Indian country. After  all, there are now 567 federally recognized tribes, and many beyond the Crow  Nation would welcome the honor of a visit from Obama, and surely some would be  willing to adopt him all over again. The expectations for the Romney campaign  remain much lower, but some Indian, somewhere, just might want to adopt him,  too.


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