Friday, September 24, 2010

Help lift Indian candidates

Help lift Indian candidates
Originally printed at

Each election season, Kalyn Free dives into the fray, making phone calls to political donors and Native American candidates running for state offices across the country.

She does so because she wants to protect tribal sovereignty and she knows the candidates her organization supports will do just that.

She does so because she wants non-Indians to take Indian candidates seeking local, state and national offices seriously.

But the main reason Free, president and founder of the Indigenous Democratic Network, or INDN’s List, fights for Indian candidates is this: She wants to give Indian children strong role models.

“These elected officials give our young Indian boys and girls hope that one day they can seek and win office,” said Free, who is Choctaw. “Little Indian boys and girls cannot be what they cannot see.”

This fall, INDN’s List, a grassroots political organization devoted to recruiting and electing Natives to local, state and national office, has endorsed 28 Indian candidates from 12 states. Those candidates come from a wide variety of tribes and backgrounds. They are seeking such offices as district attorney in Oklahoma and commissioner for a community college in California. Most are seeking seats within state legislatures.

Too many of the candidates INDN’s List is supporting this year would be, if elected, the first Indians to hold state office in their states. They include Chris Deschene, a Navajo state legislator who is seeking the office of Arizona secretary of state. Deschene attended the U.S. Naval Academy, serving two tours of duty overseas in the Marine Corps, and later earned a law degree and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering.

“Unfortunately, Indian country has, for the most part, let Indian candidates down,” Free said.

She said few tribes have stepped up to make significant and vital financial contributions to Native candidates, though tribes across the country typically contribute millions of dollars each election year to non-Indian candidates seeking federal office.

Free said Indian candidates who fail to win local and state office are unlikely to ever win a federal office. And without adequate financial support – so necessary to conduct effective political mailing and marketing campaigns – Indian candidates for local and state office are unlikely to win, she said.

“We could be and should be supporting our own folks,” Free said.

Why is it important that Indian country support Indian political candidates? First and foremost, Free said, because those candidates tend to support tribal sovereignty. In fact, INDN’s List will only endorse Native candidates who commit themselves to supporting tribal sovereignty. The organization also only puts its weight behind candidates who have a real chance of winning.

Since its inception in 2005, INDN’s List has supported both Republicans and Democrats, those who support abortion and those who oppose abortion. While Free admits to being a registered Democrat, she said she puts her personal politics aside when helping Indian candidates get elected.

However, INDN’s List doesn’t sit idly by waiting for viable Indian candidates to run for office on their own.

The group has hosted Campaign Camps in 2005 and 2007 that served as boot camps where Indian candidates learn to operate marketing campaigns, target voters and reach out to non-Indian voters, who often are reluctant to vote for Indian candidates because of stereotypes they have of Indians.

“You can’t just win your race with the Indian vote,” Free said. “You’ve got to have non-Indians vote for you.”

The group’s efforts to train and directly support Indian candidates have been successful, as INDN’s List has helped elect 45 candidates, or 70 percent of the candidates it has endorsed. INDN’s List also recruits potential Indian candidates.

“Recruiting to me is a 24/7, 365-day operation,” Free said.

The organization supports its candidates by providing lists of potential donors, as well as direct support by raising funds for those candidates. INDN’s List tries to raise the maximum amount of financial support allowed in each state for a candidate from an individual donor for each of its endorsed candidates.

“We have some fantastic candidates,” Free said.

Now she just needs Indian country to help lift those candidates into positions of power. We hope tribes and individual Native people will do just that.

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