ADA, Okla. (AP) – Many of the 39 Native American tribes based in Oklahoma have played roles in state politics for decades, often behind the scenes. They became bigger, more open players when voters approved Las Vegas-style gambling in 2004. The budgets of several large tribes have been boosted by casino revenue.
This year, in their most powerful political move yet, they are using their considerable influence to oppose the second term of Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, himself a Cherokee, who faces a tough re-election challenge after feuding with the tribe for most of his first term. mandate.
With the election just weeks away, the state’s five most powerful tribes have come together to endorse Stitt’s Democratic opponent, Joy Hofmeister, the state’s superintendent of schools who has promised more cooperation with tribal nations. It’s the first time in modern history that tribes, which often have unique or competing interests, have so publicly influenced a governor’s race.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen (tribes) more active than they are today,” said Pat McFerron, a longtime political consultant and pollster for the Oklahoma GOP. “I think they might have flown under the radar a little bit more before.”
The result is an unexpectedly close race in a deep red state that is typically an afterthought in national politics. Reflecting concern about Stitt’s vulnerability, the super PAC for the Republican Governors Association ran an ad late in the campaign linking Hofmeister to President Joe Biden and rising gas prices.
Stitt’s feud with the tribes began during his first year in office when he tried unsuccessfully to renegotiate the state’s gamble with the tribes. His administration then sought to overturn a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on tribal sovereignty in 2020 and drew tribal ire again last year when he ended state-tribe hunting and fishing agreements.
“He seems to have enjoyed this fight, he’s enjoying it and he’s wearing it as a badge of honor,” McFerron said. “It’s almost like he’s mocking them.”
The hostility between Stitt and the tribe has spilled into the public eye as the midterm elections approach. Tribal leaders publicly attacked the governor, public meetings about law enforcement in Indian Country turned ugly, and Stitt faced an onslaught of black money attack ads.
“Any governor who appoints and tries to rule over the tribes is harmful to the tribes and the country,” said Muscogee Nation Principal Chief David Hill.
Stitt, the owner of a multimillion-dollar mortgage company and a political newcomer when he ran for office four years ago, has been dogged by scandals in his administration, including a sweetheart deal given to a barbecue restaurant owner that resulted in a criminal investigation into the misuse of coronavirus relief funds. for education and $2 million spent on anti-malaria drugs during the COVID-19 pandemic that doctors have warned should not be used to treat the virus without additional testing.
Stitt has also touted new laws banning abortion, even in cases of rape or incest, and targeting treatment for transgender children, both of which have been rejected by some moderate Republicans and independents.
For his part, Stitt says he hopes that if he is elected for a second term, he will have improved relations with Indian tribes. Still, he insists that the Supreme Court’s decision to extend tribal sovereignty was harmful to the state.
“I told people I’m not going to go down in history as the governor who gives away my state,” Stitt said. “A lot of people want to paint this as an anti-India thing. This is not. This is a pro-Oklahoma thing.”
Ahead of the election, several nonprofit groups that focus on Native American voter registration and engagement say they’ve never seen this level of enthusiasm among Native American voters in statewide politics.
At a recent voter registration event at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma, home of the Chickasaw Nation, a steady stream of students, many of them Native American, filed in to register to vote at an event organized in part by Rock the Native Vote. It is a non-profit organization sponsored by the Oklahoma Indian Methodist Church that was founded in 2002. There were cars in the parking lot with tribal license plates from the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Comanche, Kiowa and Otoe-Missouria tribes.
“Our goal is to get people registered, and more importantly, native voters in our state,” said 19-year-old Devon Rain Potter, a Chickasaw Nation citizen who helped run the registration booth. “Once we get Native voters to the polls, there’s a lot we can do.”
According to the latest US Census data, Oklahoma has one of the highest percentages of Native Americans, making up nearly 10% of the state’s population. An additional 6.6% identify as two or more races. That’s easily enough to tip the scales in a hotly contested statewide race.
And it’s not just Oklahoma where homegrown voters are being courted and urged to turn out. The Native Organizers Alliance is targeting Native voters in states across the country, including swing states with large Native American populations like Arizona, said Judith LeBlanc, the group’s executive director.
Even in deep-red Texas, which has seen its Native American population grow over the past 10 years, the Democracy is Indigenous DFW group drew dozens to meet and greet candidates, including Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke, who is challenging Republican incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott. The nonpartisan group’s goal is to increase voter engagement among American Indian and Native American populations in Texas.
“We’re doing a wholehearted voter registration campaign,” LeBlanc said. “I believe we can make a difference in Oklahoma.”
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