ADA, Okla. (AP) — Many of the 39 Native American tribes based in Oklahoma have played a role in state politics for decades, often behind the scenes. They became bigger and more outspoken gamblers when voters approved Las Vegas-style gambling in 2004. The budgets of several major tribes exploded along with casino revenues.
This year, in their strongest political action yet, they are exerting their considerable influence to oppose a second term for Republican Governor Kevin Stitt, himself a Cherokee citizen, who faces a tough re-election challenge after feuding with the tribes for most of his first term.
Weeks before the election, five of the state’s most powerful tribes have jointly endorsed Stitt’s Democratic opponent, Joy Hofmeister, the state’s public schools superintendent who has promised a more cooperative relationship with tribal nations. It is the first time in modern history that tribes, which often have unique or competing interests, have weighed in on a governor’s race in such a public way.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen (the tribes) more active than they are today,” said longtime Oklahoma GOP political consultant and pollster Pat McFerron. “I think they may have flown a little more under the radar before.”
The effect is a surprisingly tight race in a deep red state that is usually an afterthought in national politics. Reflecting concerns about Stitt’s vulnerability, the Republican Governors Association super PAC released an ad at the end of the campaign linking Hofmeister – which moved from the GOP to challenge Stitt as a Democrat – to President Joe Biden and rising gas prices.
Stitt’s feud with the tribes began during his first year in office when he unsuccessfully attempted to renegotiate the state gambling contract with the tribes. His administration then sought to overthrow a landmark United States Supreme Court ruling on tribal sovereignty in 2020 and again drew the ire of the tribes last year when he terminated hunting and fishing pacts between the state and the tribes.
“He seems to have enjoyed that fight, savors it and calls it a badge of honor,” McFerron said. “It’s almost like he’s laughing at them.”
Animosity between Stitt and the tribes spilled over into public opinion as the midterm elections approached. The tribal leaders have publicly attacked the governorpublic law enforcement meetings in Indian Country turned ugly and Stitt faced a black money attack ads attack.
“Any governor who pretends and attempts to dominate tribes is detrimental to tribes and to the state,” said Muscogee Nation Senior Chief David Hill.
Stitt, a multimillionaire mortgage company owner and political newcomer when he ran four years ago, has been plagued by scandals in his administration, including a special offer given to a barbecue restaurant owner which resulted in a criminal investigation, inappropriate spending of coronavirus relief funds intended for education and $2 million spent on malaria drugs during the COVID-19 pandemic that doctors had warned should not be used to treat the virus without further testing.
Stitt also touted new laws prohibiting abortion, even in cases of rape or incest, and targeting the medical treatment of transgender childrenboth of which have turned away some moderate and independent Republicans.
For his part, Stitt says he hopes that if elected to a second term, he will have improved relations with Native American tribes. Yet he insists that the Supreme Court’s decision expanding tribal sovereignty has been detrimental to the state.
“I told people that I will not go down in history as a governor who betrays my state,” Stitt said. “A lot of people want to portray this as an anti-Indian thing. It’s not. It’s a pro-Oklahoma thing.
In the run-up to the election, several nonprofit groups that focus on Native American voter registration and engagement say they’ve never seen this level of enthusiasm among Indian voters in politics in the past. statewide.
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 whom were Native American, signed up to register to vote in the from an event hosted in part by Rock the Native Vote. It is a non-profit organization sponsored by the Indian Methodist Church of Oklahoma which was established in 2002. In the parking lot were cars with tribal license plates from the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Comanche, Kiowa tribes and Otoe-Missouria.
“Our goal is to register people and more importantly the Indigenous voters of our state,” said Devon Rain Potter, 19, a Chickasaw Nation citizen who helped run a registration kiosk. voters to go to the polls, there is a lot we can do. »
According to the most recent US Census data, Oklahoma has one of the highest percentages of Native American citizens with nearly 10% of the state’s population. Another 6.6% identify as belonging to 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 Native voters are being wooed and invited to run. The Native Organizers Alliance targets 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 an increase in the Native American population over the past 10 years, the group Democracy is Indigenous DFW drew dozens of people when meeting with candidates, including the Democratic candidate for office. of governor. Beto O’Rourke, who is challenging incumbent Republican Governor Greg Abbott. The nonpartisan group’s goal is to increase voter engagement with the Native American and Native population of Texas.
“We are running an unqualified voter registration campaign,” LeBlanc said. “I believe in Oklahoma we can make a difference.”
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