On Tuesday afternoon, a caravan that included Montana’s top Democrats up for election or re-election kicked off a three-day tour of all seven Indian reservations, beginning in Crow Agency before moving onto Lame Deer.
They’re campaigning to encourage the traditionally Democratic-leaning Montana American Indian voters to turn out in big numbers.
Along with local Crow candidates Carolyn Pease-Lopez and Sharon Stewart Perogoy, the heavy-hitting list of Montana candidates also included U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, gubernatorial candidate Steve Bullock, Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, Montana attorney general candidate Pam Bucy, congressional candidate Kim Gillan, State Auditor Monica Lindeen, Public Service Commission candidate Chuck Tooley and Secretary of State Linda McCulloch.
“The people that are doing public service to our country, they pay attention to those who vote,” Juneau said. “And we know that when Indians vote, Democrats win.”
Juneau, who grew up in Browning on the Blackfeet Reservation and is of Mandan and Hidatsa descent, is the first American Indian woman to be elected to a statewide executive office in Montana. She said it was important for Democrats to run together because you wouldn’t see Republicans doing the same thing.
So the importance of the native vote is not underestimated among Democratic candidates, and a major advantage democrats have courting local American native voters is that according to Pease-Lopez, “Republicans don’t even come to our reservations to campaign.”
Pease said that because of voter apathy in 2010, a lot of “crazy people” were elected into the Montana Legislature. However, much to their chagrin, she said, she’s been a continuous thorn in the side of what she considered an extremist Republican agenda.
“Everyone thinks that they should vote for a Republican if they’re a Christian, but there are social issues I care about as well,” she said. “I care about babies even after they’re born; I care about education for our children; I care about feeding the hungry and homeless; I care about people, and that’s why I’m so honored to be on this Democratic team because they share my values – Christian values.”
Chuck Tooley, a Vietnam veteran, had all the local veterans present raise their hands. Since he was in Indian Country - where Americans Indians serve at a higher rate than any other ethnic group – a large show of hands went up.
“I want to honor you,” said Tooley. “There’s not one veteran on the Republican ticket in Montana, from the president all the way down to the Public Service Commission.”
In contrast, he pointed out that Sen. Tester is on the Veterans Affairs Committee, and the lieutenant governor running mate of Bullock is Gen. John Walsh (retired), who was in Iraq in 2004 leading the Montana National Guard’s 163rd Infantry Battalion.
“We have veteran representation on the Democratic ticket,” he said.
Steve Bullock related a story about how before he was elected attorney general he took on a Big Horn County case in 2006 after a lot of tribal members were elected to local offices.
“The case was essentially saying, ‘There must’ve been voter fraud because too many Indians got elected.’ And they actually brought an action saying somehow something went wrong because in the Bighorn County elections a lot of Indians voted,” he said. “We need to be sure in this election people will be saying, ‘Look at all the Indians that came out and voted!’”
Indeed, Sen. Tester was undoubtedly helped by a high turnout of American Indian voters in 2006 when he beat incumbent Conrad Burns. Sen. Tester said he’s visited Indian reservations in Montana 56 times since he’s been elected. He’s helped the Crow Tribe fight to get their Crow Tribe Water Rights Settlement to ensure clean drinking water, and has been an advocate of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which he claimed Rehberg has voted against numerous times this year.
“Indian reservations are an important part of not only our state, but our economy, and we need to make sure they get the kind of representation they need.” Sen. Tester said. “There are a lot of issues out there that are important in Indian Country, and you just have to come out and see them first hand.”