WASHINGTON – This election year, Native Americans will have a rare opportunity to vote for a candidate who knows their issues well and has worked with them for years.
Yet, Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s long history with Indian country may be hurting him as much as helping.
As a senator from Arizona, a state with more than 20 federally recognized tribes, McCain has spent two decades on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, including two stints as chairman. But some Native Americans are angry over McCain’s attempts while chairman from 2005 to 2006 to put more regulations on Indian casinos. They say he should have been more focused on Indian health care and other needs.
Some also resent McCain’s decision to refuse campaign donations from tribal governments.
By contrast, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, is taking their money.
McCain faces other challenges in Indian country, where Native Americans tend to vote heavily Democratic. Though Indians make up just about 1 percent of the U.S. population, they comprise key voting blocs in states where they’re concentrated such as North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Alaska and New Mexico.
Despite his lack of background in tribal affairs — there are no federally recognized tribes in Illinois — Obama is making a big play for those votes, with lots of help from former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., a widely respected figure in Indian country.
On the donations, McCain’s advisers say tribes should spend their money on their own needs, not on politicians. But some Indians feel their money has been viewed as tainted ever since an investigation that was started by McCain found that GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff was ripping off tribal clients.
Some tribes say they were the victims of that scandal, not participants in it, and have every right to make political donations.
McCain “couldn’t claim any major legislative victories during his tenure as chairman concerning Indian country,” said J. Kurt Luger, executive director of the Great Plains Indian Gaming Association in Bismarck, N.D. “He put forward a piece of legislation that would have added more burdensome regulation to our gaming industry at a time when our federal funding was at its lowest point.”
To counter McCain’s long history, Obama has met eight times with tribal leaders, opened campaign offices on reservations, run a radio ad in the Navajo language and released an Indian policy platform more than a year ago.
It’s making an impression.
Obama has “really reached out more, I think,” said A. Gay Kingman, executive director of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association.
Kingman said her group hoped for a meeting with McCain when he was in South Dakota this month, but it didn’t happen. The McCain campaign cites scheduling conflicts.
“We were very disappointed because we’ve had a long history with Sen. McCain and I know that if he personally had gotten the message, he might have met with us. But we couldn’t get to him,” Kingman said.
McCain’s campaign responds that none of Obama’s promises can match McCain’s years of service on Indian Affairs. The campaign has a long list of McCain’s accomplishments for Indian country, including his sponsorship of the Tribal Self-Governance Act of 1994, which aimed for more self-sufficient tribal government; legislation to address methamphetamine use in Indian country; and authorship of the Indian Child Protection and Family Violence Prevention Act.
They also cite his work to update the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. Critics note that the bill didn’t actually pass the Senate until this year, with Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairing Indian Affairs.
“Sen. Obama’s going to have to meet with (tribes) on a daily basis to catch up with the 25 years Sen. McCain has spent on their issues,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, senior policy director to McCain. “I don’t think there’s anything that even looks like a horse race in terms of intimacy of association and familiarity with the issues.”
For some Native Americans, it may come down to a choice between the devil you know and the devil you don’t — a phrase Obama himself has used about the campaign.
“Sen. McCain knows us intimately, so he knows our strengths as well as our weaknesses, so that could play good and bad for us,” said Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. “Sen. Obama is newer to this field.”
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