Indian Country politics and public policy

Commentary by Mark Trahant

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Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Last year about now I was pretty much writing all politics all the time. Indian Country had so many good candidates to offer. Interesting resumes. Better ideas. Campaigns that led to a few wins. A few more losses. And that’s life.

This year I am pretty much writing about health care policy all the time. The Republican plans are so bad — and especially for Indian Country — that they ought be dismissed as dangerous nonsense at every opportunity. As I have written before there is a conservative approach to health care. None of the current proposals are that; they are only a destructive force. (More about that after the Senate releases it latest attempt to reach a 50 vote majority.)

Of course there is also a connection between campaign politics and policy. We’re almost a year away from the next House and Senate election and we’re just starting to get a look at the candidates who will be making policy.

And it turns out there is news.

In Oklahoma, Democrats swept two state legislative seats this week in districts where Donald Trump won handily last year.

One of the seats in the Tulsa area had been held by Rep. Dan Kirby, Creek, and a Republican member of the Native American caucus. He resigned in February following allegations of sexual harassment by staff members. Kirby’s seat was won by a retired teacher, Karen Gaddis (who lost to Kirby in November by 12 percentage points). This had been a safe Republican seat.

A state Senate election (also stemming from a sex scandal) was won Tuesday by a Democrat in the Oklahoma City area.

Oklahoma is one of the most Republican states in the country. So it’s huge to see such a significant shift in a special election. (Unless, that is, it’s just those sex scandals and not the Trump factor.)

One person who ought to be especially concerned by these two election results: Rep. Markwayne Mullins.

Mullins won 70 percent of the vote in his third re-election bid in 2016. Mullins, a member of the Cherokee Nation, first ran in the Tea Party-inspired wave in 2012. He ran against too much government, a repeal of Obamacare, and a silly promise to limit his time in office to three terms.

Now he’s running for his fourth term and some prominent conservatives are unhappy. Former Sen. Tom Coburn told Oklahoma’s KFAQ radio that it was sad because this “nice young man … has drunk the Kool-Aid in Washington.”

It’s funny and prescient. Mullins ads said: “A Rancher. A Businessman. Not a politician.” Mullins can hardly say that now. It’s like the great line in the movie “The Candidate” when young Bill McKay is elected governor and his father (who was a governor) tells him: “Bud, you’re a politician.”

Even the story changed. In his early ads, Mullin talks about term limits as an answer to the problem of being an insider in Washington. But in his video explaining why he’s running again, Mullin said — after much prayer — that he’s changing his mind for family reasons. “I’m not hiding from that because we did say we’re going to serve six years, and it was out of true concerns,” he said. But that’s ok now. The family is doing great.

And, like every politician before him, the voters really need him. Just him. Especially during this era of Donald Trump (that is … if the era even lasts until the next election).

Mullin has been the congressional voice for the Trump version of a Native American policy. He praised the Dakota Access Pipeline project and was critical of tribal leaders for opposing it at a hearing in February. “What do you consider meaningful conversations between government-to-government?” Mullins asked Chad Harrison from Standing Rock. His reply was great: “An actual dialogue, perhaps.”

But while Mullin complained about the power of Standing Rock to slow down the Dakota Access Pipeline, he says he’s all for increased powers of tribes to develop such energy projects. The president should “provide tribes with the resources they need in order to best decide how their land should be developed,” he said. How. Not if.

Then perhaps that gets to the actual dialogue part. Or lack thereof.

Mullin supports the House health care bill that would wreck the Indian health system. Then Mullin does not see it that way. In a May Q & A published by the Miami News-Record he said flat out that Republican plans will not hurt the Indian Health Service. “The American Health Care Act (AHCA), which the House passed on May 4th to repeal and replace Obamacare, makes no changes to Indian Health Services (IHS). In addition, the spending bill passed to fund the government through September funds IHS at a rate of $5 billion – an increase of $232 million from last year’s levels. I anticipate the native people of Oklahoma will welcome both of these things.”

Excuse me. But as I’ve been reporting (often) Medicaid is a significant funding stream for Indian health. And the House bill (and its Senate twin) destroy that whole infrastructure.

He told his constituents that no one who has health care will lose it because of the Republican plans. He said emergency rooms cannot turn people away. Seriously. That’s a health care plan? Mullin told the Tulsa World: “We think the federal government is going to solve all of our problems, but let me ask you, how is (that) going?”

That explains a lot. Mullin was against the Violence Against Women Act (which will need to be reauthorized by Congress next year) including the provisions that recognize tribal judicial authority.

Back to politics. If there is a voter groundswell of Trump opposition — even in Oklahoma — then Mullin’s re-election race could become interesting. The right candidate could push him on the left while Coburn and other conservatives will question his integrity from the right.

But who will challenge him? I’d like to see a candidate from one of the tribes. Oklahoma’s 2nd Congressional District is 17 percent Native American and it’s 65 percent rural. That’s two constituent groups that will be deeply impacted by Republican health care plans. There is an issue to run on here. (Not to mention that Coburn, who once held this seat, will campaign against Mullin. And the Trump chaos.)

We’re a little more than a year away from the next election. So this is the time to sort out who’s running from Indian Country, who should be running, and to pass on those candidates who regularly vote against Indian Country. I’d add Mullin to that last list.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com

 

One thought on “Election update: Rancher, businessman, and, yes, absolutely, a career politician

  1. Pat Ragsdale says:

    I agree Mullin does little to support Indian country unless it helps his plumbing business. He arrogantly states he has paid for his congressional position with his own taxes. Cares little for the least among us. His Cherokee heritage is not aligned with Cherokee values.

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