John Kenneth White , professor, politics, was quoted in a Gannett News Service article about the lack of attention presidential candidates have given to Native American voters while campaigning. See his comments in the story below.

Few Dems show for 'Prez on the Rez'

From: Gannett News Service Date: Aug. 22, 2007 Author: Diana Marrero WASHINGTON - American Indian leaders vowed 2008 would be different - Indian country would be one of the stops on the road to the White House.But a historic presidential forum at the Morongo Band of Mission Indians' reservation in Southern California has attracted only three of the eight Democratic candidates: Bill Richardson, Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich.

The absence of top-tier candidates - Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York, Barack Obama of Illinois and former senator John Edwards of North Carolina - for Thursday's debate shows the leading contenders continue to take the Indian vote - small and usually Democratic - for granted, organizers say.

"If they won't come talk to us now, they certainly won't be responsive to us if they get in the White House," said Kalyn Free, a Choctaw from Oklahoma who is organizing the Democratic forum, called "Prez on the Rez."

Top contenders said they could not attend because of scheduling conflicts. The event is the first attempt to bring a presidential debate to Indian country.

Tribes are becoming increasingly involved in politics: voting, making large campaign contributions and running for office.

In states like California and Oklahoma, where Indian casinos are large employers, tribal leaders have become major political players. For example, the Morongo tribe was one of four to negotiate new gaming agreements in California above the protests of local unions.

It's a trickier proposition for Indians to assert political power on a national level - even as casino tribes donate millions in campaign cash to federal candidates, experts say.

Tribes contributed $7.6 million to federal candidates in 2006, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. They spent $16.7 million on Washington lobbying last year.

"They have gone from being the poor sisters of American politics to being more politically influential," said John Kenneth White, a political scientist at Catholic University in Washington. "The challenge they've had is how to be effective politically and savvy politically."

A number of factors continue to thwart them from making greater strides: They make up less than 2% of the U.S. population, and they live outside key primary states and they are newcomers to the mainstream political process.

The case against Jack Abramoff, a former lobbyist turned convicted criminal, illustrates how a number of newly rich casino tribes were trying to assert themselves politically in Washington by hiring Abramoff but lacked the savvy to know they were getting fleeced, experts say.

American Indians say they are working to overcome those obstacles, often running for office themselves. There are now 76 American Indian state legislators and one congressman, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.

"We have a growing awareness," said Mary Ann Andreas, vice chairwoman of the Morongos, one of California's wealthiest tribes. "We need to bring that to the next level."

With the exception of a handful of states, including Alaska where a fifth of the population is native, American Indians represent just a tiny portion of the electorate. Only four million Americans consider themselves at least part American Indian, according to the 2000 census.

That doesn't mean their votes can't sway an election, experts say.

In Montana, where about 7% of residents are Indian, the native vote has been credited with helping Democrat Jon Tester edge past incumbent Republican Sen. Conrad Burns.

American Indian leaders argue their votes could prove similarly influential next year in states such as New Mexico, Washington and Wisconsin, which are considered key battleground states. Michigan, Nevada and Oklahoma are early primary states with a significant American Indian presence.

However, presidential candidates are spending most of their time in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, early states where few Indians live.

"If the early primary states were Arizona and South Dakota," said Hamilton College political scientist Philip Klinkner, "things might be a little bit different."

When organizers dreamed up "Prez on the Rez," they envisioned an event that would draw all the Democratic presidential hopefuls to discuss the most important issues facing tribes today - poverty, drug addiction and the shortest life expectancy for any ethnic or racial group in the country.

Alvin Windy Boy Sr., who recently drove 300 miles from the Rocky Boy's Reservation to take his daughter to a dentist in Billings, Mont., wants to know what the presidential candidates would do to improve rural health care.

"In the back(yard) of the most elite prestigious government in the world," he said, "you have some of us living in third-world conditions."