Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s feud with Native tribes threatens his re-election

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ADA, Okla. (AP) — Many of the 39 Native American tribes based in Oklahoma have played a role in state politics for decades, often behind the scenes. They became bigger and more outspoken gamblers when voters approved Las Vegas-style gambling in 2004. The budgets of several major tribes exploded along with casino revenues.

This year, in their strongest policy move yet, they are wielding their considerable influence to oppose a second term for Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, himself a Cherokee citizen, who faces a tough re-election challenge after struggled with the tribes for nearly all of his first term.

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Weeks before the election, five of the state’s most powerful tribes have jointly endorsed Stitt’s Democratic opponent, Joy Hofmeister, the state’s public schools superintendent who has promised a more cooperative relationship with tribal nations. It is the first time in modern history that tribes, which often have unique or competing interests, have weighed in on a governor’s race in such a public way.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen [the tribes] more active than they are today,” said longtime Oklahoma GOP political consultant and pollster Pat McFerron. “I think they may have flown a little more under the radar before.”

The effect is a surprisingly tight race in a deep red state that is usually an afterthought in national politics. Reflecting concerns about Stitt’s vulnerability, the Republican Governors Association super PAC released an end-of-campaign ad linking Hofmeister — who rose from the GOP to challenge Stitt as a Democrat — to President Joe Biden and the rise in gasoline prices.

Hofmeister’s observation that Oklahoma has recently suffered higher violent crime rates than the populous coastal states of New York and California has also drawn national attention. Stitt laughed and asked the audience in a mocking tone if they could imagine Hofmeister believed what she said about relative state crime rates.

The data backs up Hofmeister’s claim, third-party sources have verified.

Stitt’s feud with the Tribes began during his first year in office when he unsuccessfully attempted to renegotiate the state’s gambling pact with the Tribes. His administration then sought to overturn a landmark US Supreme Court ruling on tribal sovereignty in 2020 and again drew the ire of tribes last year when it ended hunting and fishing pacts between the state and the tribes.

“He seems to have enjoyed that fight, savors it and calls it a badge of honor,” McFerron said. “It’s almost like he’s laughing at them.”

Animosity between Stitt and the tribes spilled over into public opinion as the midterm elections approached. Tribal leaders publicly attacked the governor, public meetings about law enforcement in Indian Country turned ugly, and Stitt faced an onslaught of black money ads.

“Any governor who pretends and attempts to dominate tribes is detrimental to tribes and to the state,” said Muscogee Nation Senior Chief David Hill.

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Stitt, a multi-millionaire mortgage company owner and political newcomer when he ran four years ago, has been dogged by scandals in his administration, including a sweetheart deal given to the owner of a restaurant in barbecue that resulted in a criminal investigation, inappropriate spending of coronavirus education relief funds and $2 million spent on malaria drugs during the COVID-19 pandemic that doctors warned they shouldn’t not be used to treat the virus without further testing.

Stitt also touted new laws banning abortion, even in cases of rape or incest, and targeting medical treatment for transgender children, both of which have turned away some moderate and independent Republicans.

See (May 2022): Oklahoma governor signs nation’s toughest abortion ban

For his part, Stitt says he hopes that if elected to a second term, he will have improved relations with Native American tribes. Yet he insists that the Supreme Court’s decision expanding tribal sovereignty has been detrimental to the state.

“I told people that I will not go down in history as a governor who betrays my state,” Stitt said. “A lot of people want to portray this as an anti-Indian thing. It’s not. It’s a pro-Oklahoma thing.

‘I don’t know if I’ve ever seen [the tribes] more active than they are today.


– Pat McFerron, Oklahoma GOP political consultant and pollster

In the run-up to the election, several nonprofit groups that focus on Native American voter registration and engagement say they’ve never seen this level of enthusiasm among Indian voters in politics in the past. statewide.

At a recent voter registration event at East Central University in Ada, Okla., home of the Chickasaw Nation, a steady stream of students, many of whom were Native American, signed up to register to vote. at an event hosted in part by Rock the Native Voter. It is a non-profit organization sponsored by the Indian Methodist Church of Oklahoma which was established in 2002. In the parking lot were cars with tribal license plates from the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Comanche, Kiowa tribes and Otoe-Missouria.

“Our goal is to register people and more importantly the Indigenous voters of our state,” said Devon Rain Potter, 19, a Chickasaw Nation citizen who was helping run a registration kiosk. “Once we have succeeded in convincing indigenous voters to come to the polls, we can do a lot.

According to the most recent US Census data, Oklahoma has one of the highest percentages of Native American citizens at nearly 10% of the state’s population. Another 6.6% identify as belonging to two or more races. That’s easily enough to tip the scales in a hotly contested statewide race.

And it’s not just Oklahoma where Native voters are being wooed and invited to run. The Native Organizers Alliance targets Native voters in states across the country, including swing states with large Native American populations like Arizona, said Judith LeBlanc, the group’s executive director.

Even in deep-red Texas, which has seen an increase in the Native American population over the past 10 years, the group Democracy is Indigenous DFW drew dozens of people when meeting with candidates, including the Democratic candidate for office. of Governor Beto O’Rourke, who is challenging incumbent Republican Governor Greg Abbott. The nonpartisan group’s goal is to increase voter engagement with the Native American and Native population of Texas.

“We are running an unqualified voter registration campaign,” LeBlanc said. “I believe in Oklahoma we can make a difference.”

MarketWatch contributed.

Read more (June 2021): Oklahoma’s New Law Intensifies Debate Over How and Whether Schools Address Tulsa Race Massacre

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