Election update: Rancher, businessman, and, yes, absolutely, a career politician

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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 Mullin.

Mullin 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. Mullin’s ads said: “A Rancher. A Businessman. Not a politician.” Mullin 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


#NativeVote16 – Tom Cole forges the GOP case for tribal sovereignty


From Tom Cole’s Twitter feed: “Great to see @ChickasawNation citizen @TomColeOK04 & former @Osagenation Chief Jim Gray at White House Tribal Nations Conference. #WHTNC”

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Early on I decided to focus this #NativeVote16 project on American Indians and Alaska Natives running for office. (Instead of a broader look at the election and its impact on Indian Country.) That’s made it easier for me to ignore so much of the nonsense that’s surfaced in this presidential election year. From time to time I still write about the White House race, but it’s through the lens of a democracy that must include more Native voices.

Oklahoma’s Tom Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Tribe, is one such voice. It’s not that I, or even we, always agree with him. I sure don’t. I see the world from a different perspective. He is a conservative Republican and represents his constituents world view (and as such often tries to dampen the concerns about harsh Republican budgets, Paul Ryan, or even Donald Trump.)

He told CHNI Oklahoma News this week that he was “absolutely appalled” by Trump’s comments on tape. “It’s disgusting. It’s crude. It’s vile. There’s no defense for it whatsoever. People shouldn’t be shy about saying that.” However, Cole said he would not back away from supporting the GOP nominee. And that position he’s been steady ever since Trump won the party mantle. He also said there are people “of good character and good opinion” on both sides of the presidential race and questioning Trump’s fitness is a fair concern.


When the issues involve tribes, and especially, tribal sovereignty, Cole has been one of the most important members in the history of Congress.

What makes Cole so important? He can argue the case within the Republican caucus, and, even better, with the House Republican leadership. He is a measured, reasoned voice, not just for Indian Country, but for his idea of what a conservative party should be. And that means being inclusive.

So Cole has history of being the consistent inside-the-party voice calling for more money for the Indian Health system. “We have a lot of people on both sides of the aisle who recognize the Indian country has been historically underfunded,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network in 2012. He’s sided with tribes over Democrats on the issue of labor unions and government operations, pointing out that a lot of states run businesses from hotels at parks to insurance programs. Yet it’s only tribal governments that are pressed to allow union representation in tribal enterprises. And, most important, he was the architect of building a coalition in the House of Representatives to enact the Violence Against Women Act. He told WNYC radio that bill was “a very, very difficult issue because there were divisions within his own conference that prevented (then Speaker John Boehner) from getting to 218.” So Cole found enough Republicans and Democrats to pass the measure into law.

Rep. Tom Cole writes in Oklahoma Humanities why tribal sovereignty should not be seen as a partisan issue, but as American issue.

Cole once again makes the case for tribal governments in the Winter edition of Oklahoma Humanities. “A tribe is a living, breathing entity that exists organically. Its purpose is to improve the lives and preserve the identities of its members. If a tribe fails at this, it eventually ceases to exist. Tribes are recognized as sovereign entities in the U.S. Constitution. That means that membership in a tribe gives one a political identity as well as a cultural heritage,” he writes. “It is an extraordinary time in which we live— for Indian Country and the broader culture of our nation—a time of tribal renaissance and self-determination. In Oklahoma, tribal governments are helping drive the economy, creating tens of thousands of jobs, and generating hundreds of millions of dollars for the state government. There is amazing vitality in Native American culture and a great deal of interest and respect for Native Americans that is uncharacteristic of our history. Without question, I believe tribal sovereignty must be defended; but more than that, it often needs to be explained. As I remind my fellow lawmakers in Congress, the same oath we take to uphold the Constitution is an oath to defend tribal sovereignty.”

Powerful words.

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





#NativeVote16 – Cole, Mullin win; Fewer Native voices in Oklahoma Legislature


The only two members of Congress who are Native American both survived their primary challenges Tuesday.

Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a Chickasaw, easily defeated his Republican challenger winning  more than 71 percent of the votes cast. “I just want to thank the voters,” Cole told The Ada News. “It’s nice to know people support me, and I look forward to running a vigorous race in the fall.”

Markwayne Mullin, who’s now serving his second term in Congress, had a tougher Republican primary. His opponent, Jarrin Jackson, was endorsed by former Sen. Tom Coburn. One of the campaign issues was whether or not Mullin would stick with a pledge to retire after three terms. He won the primary with 63 percent of the vote.

Nationally there are eight Native Americans running for Congress.

The Oklahoma Legislature did have the largest Native American caucus of any state. There are 19 members in the current legislature. However several members were not able to run again because they reached the state’s term limits. Paul Wesselhoft, for example, could not run again and he was a founding member of the legislative caucus. He’s also a legislator for the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. “The most serious misunderstanding of tribes and tribal government by my fellow state legislators is their misconception of tribal sovereignty,” he said on his tribe’s web site. “They do not realize that tribes want to be self-sufficient and autonomous. Somehow they see this as an attack or an encroachment on state sovereignty. I am constantly educating legislators that both entities can exercise sovereignty without destroy the sovereignty of the other.”

My list of Native American candidates who earned a spot on the November ballot include:

— Rep. Chuck Hoskin, D, Claremore, Cherokee;

— Rep. Mark McBride, R, Moore, Citizen Nation Potawatomi;

— Rep. Cory Williams, D, Stillwater, Cherokee;

— Rep. Dan Kirby, R, Broken Arrow, Muscogee;

— Rep. William Fourkiller, D, Stilwell, Cherokee;

— Candidate Dennis Purifoy, D,Yukon, Choctaw

–Candidate Scott Fetgatter, R, Okmulgee, Choctaw;

— Candidate Sooner Davenport, Independent, Yukon, Apache Tribe of Oklahoma, Kiowa and Navajo.

Two candidates who did not make the November ballot include LaRenda Morgan who posted on Facebook: “I congratulated my opponent Mickey Dollens last night and wished him Good Luck. I have no hard feelings towards him. I don’t really know him but we’ve had friendly interactions anytime we saw each other and we smiled & shook hands last week when I seen him out while I was campaigning. I haven’t forgotten my teachings.” Brenda Golden wrote on her Facebook page: “After having a day to decompress, I wanted to express how thankful I am to have had the support and showing of love by so many people who wanted to see me get elected to state office. It truly moved me and warmed my heart …”

A final thought: Many successful politicians lost their first contest. It takes a lot of heart to run for office, especially when you try and represent so many missing Native American voices.

— Mark Trahant














FCC rule would redefine Indian lands in Oklahoma

Commission cites century-old map to identify “former reservation” lands

Perhaps the most powerful phrase in federal rule-making is “… and tribes.” Those two words require agencies to consult and consider the impact of any action on tribal governments and their citizens. When the process works well, it gives tribes a say in how the agency fulfills its mission.

Then not every federal agency sees consultation the same. Some government regulations are extraordinarily complicated and easily slip past a public debate that includes voices from Indian Country.

A case in point is the Federal Communications Commission and its rethinking of the rules for its Lifeline program. Lifeline began in 1985 as part of the break-up of the old AT&T telephone network. The idea was to make certain that poor people had access to telephones, essential tools for finding and keeping jobs, keeping in touch with family, or calling a clinic to make a doctor’s appointment. Of course the world has changed much since 1985. Many “home” telephones are now cell phones. And today that connection ought to include broadband access. As the FCC itself says: “Disconnected consumers, which are disproportionately low-income consumers, are at an increasing disadvantage as institutions and schools, and even government agencies, require access for full participation in key facets of society.”

Exactly. The nature of life in this digital age means that American Indians and Alaska Natives, no matter the geography or income, need to find a way to be connected. But even simple ideas run up against the complexity of history, governing during a partisan divide, and the challenges of defining tribal lands and sovereignty.

In recent years, critics of the Lifeline program say that it became a pipeline for fraud. Phone companies determined who was eligible and even filled out the subsidy paperwork. Denver CBS4 reported that some vendors used someone else’s food stamp cards as the identification to sign up for subsidized service. A Tulsa a telephone company owner  was sent to prison after being convicted of fraudulently selling consumers Lifeline service.

So in 2012 the FCC made substantial changes to the Lifeline program. The idea is to scale back the numbers of eligible consumers so that more resources will be available for new digital Lifelines.

According to the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, those reforms resulted in some 6 million fewer households using the program, dropping from 18 million to 12 million in 2014.

The FCC says Oklahoma is a particularly thorny problem because the “data show that two-thirds of enhanced Tribal support goes to non-facilities based Lifeline providers, and it’s unclear whether the support is being used to deploy facilities in Tribal areas.” There was no real definition of Indian land in Oklahoma so practically anyone could cite that provision of the subsidy, a monthly discount of $9.25 on telephone bills plus up to an additional $25 a month subsidy for “residents of tribal lands” (depending on service costs). One FCC Commissioner said that because all of Oklahoma is considered Indian Country only 339 consumers out of 307,434 did not qualify for the special tribal lands subsidy.

So the FCC’s solution is to invent a new definition of tribal lands in Oklahoma.

Defining tribal lands is easy in a reservation setting. (Or at least it should be.) But it is far more complicated in Oklahoma, Alaska, Nevada, and other regions where the history is different.

It’s in that context that the FCC came up with its new rule that redefines tribal lands within Oklahoma based on a map of the state from 1870 to 1890 to identify “former” reservation lands. Only tribal citizens within those century-old boundaries will be considered eligible for the subsidy.

Brian Howard, a legislative analyst for the National Congress of American Indians, says the use of these maps are problematic because they’re not real boundaries. There is not even a map that can be plotted with Geographic Information Service data (GIS).

What’s more: This Oklahoma map has no statutory authority. It’s an invention of the FCC.

A second element of the FCC proposal carves out an exception within its own mapping system. The FCC says some tribal lands are too “densely populated” and that “is inconsistent with the Commission’s objectives.”

“What level of geographic granularity should we examine to apply any population density-based test?” The commission asked. It said other federal agencies do the same thing, citing the Department of Agriculture’s Food Distribution Program which excludes residents of cities and towns in Oklahoma that are larger than 10,000 people.

Nearly every federal programs treats Oklahoma, Alaska, and a few urban areas within Indian Country in Nevada and Arizona, in exactly the same manner as they would reservation lands.

In June in St. Paul, Minnesota, the National Congress of American Indians passed a resolution that called the FCC’s new definition unacceptable. NCAI said the FCC should instead consult with sovereign tribal nations to come up with a definition of tribal lands that “does not exclude urban, suburban, or high density areas within tribal lands.” A filing by NCAI this week before the FCC adds: “In light of this recommendation areas with high-population densities of tribal populations—like Tulsa, OK, Chandler, AZ, Anchorage, AK, and Reno, NV—should still be eligible for the enhanced tribal Lifeline subsidy. Tribal populations are mobile and often move to economic centers for jobs, but that does not always correlate into improved socio-economic circumstances for tribal members.”

The key thing to remember is that tribes were not involved with fraudulent subsidies for Lifeline. Those crimes largely came about because private telephone companies were helping people enroll as well as producing supporting documents. Yet instead of working with tribes to come up with a solution to the problem, the FCC has set in motion its new rule that weakens both tribal authority and control over boundaries.

NCAI strongly urges the FCC to consider the record of evidence regarding the disparate levels in access and affordability of telecommunications services on tribal lands,” NCAI said in comments about the rule. “While this rule-making is focused on transitioning the FCC’s low-income programs to support broadband service, it is critical to recognize that historical and ongoing shifts in technology and service have only increased the Digital Divide on tribal lands.”

Indian Country remains well behind the rest of the country when it comes to technology service.

But even more important than the technical details of this proposal, there’s the limited nature of  “…and tribes” as being a part of this rule making. Instead of asking for solutions, the FCC is inventing new law.

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. This piece was produced in partnership with Native Public Media. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.