Tribe wields huge leverage in NC race

Greg Nash

This year’s Senate race in North Carolina has given a Native American tribe enormous leverage on a bill it has been pushing for decades.

The contest between Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) and North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) is expected to go down to wire and could determine which party controls the upper chamber in 2015. Voter turnout is extremely important to Hagan’s fate, and that’s where the Lumbee Tribe comes into play.

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North Carolina is home to the most Native Americans east of the Mississippi River. The Lumbee Tribe is the largest tribal community with more than 58,000 residing in the state, according to the 2010 census. The tribe usually votes overwhelmingly for Democrats.

The Lumbees are seeking a vote in the Democratic-led Senate on legislation that would give them federal recognition. Federally recognized tribes are entitled to funding from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and certain benefits, services and protections because of their relationship with the U.S. government.

“[Federal recognition] would give us a better educational system, more economic development opportunities, a better health system, in effect, a better way to enhance the lives of our people,” said Paul Brooks, Lumbee tribal chairman.

Hagan and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) last year reintroduced the Lumbee Recognition Act. Similar legislation has passed the House twice in 2007 and 2009.

Although the Lumbees lean hard left, Brooks said the tribe is watching both Hagan and Tillis “very closely, for we do not believe in words anymore, but in what a senator does or does not do.”

Brooks noted that Burr received 40 percent of the votes cast by the Lumbee Tribe in 2010. “That is the winning number for a Republican candidate in North Carolina Indian Country.”

He added, “[Burr] came to us after losing the Indian vote … and said, ‘I lost your vote, but let’s start again.’ ”

Hagan and Burr testified last year before the Committee on Indian Affairs in support of the Lumbee legislation.

Tillis’s campaign manager, Jordan Shaw, said the Speaker supports Lumbee recognition.

“Obviously, we’re trying to build as broad of a coalition as we can,” Shaw said. “We believe Speaker Tillis’s message will resonate with people in North Carolina from all walks of life. We’ll campaign across the state to reach [everyone].”

The Lumbee Tribe was first recognized by the state in 1885 and sought federal recognition in 1888. Congress passed The Lumbee Act in 1956, but the legislation denied Lumbees benefits received by other federally recognized tribes.

“As with so many other tribes, the United States made promises, but did not provide the tools to secure an economic future,” said Brooks. The law also mandates the Lumbee Tribe can only be recognized through an act of Congress.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), a smaller population of Native Americans residing in North Carolina, is the only fully recognized tribe in the state. The Lumbees supported the EBCI when it pursued recognition, but the Eastern Band has been actively opposing Lumbee legislation. 

Proponents of the Lumbee bill say the Eastern Band is blocking the legislation to maintain its monopoly on North Carolina’s gaming industry.

On June 6, the EBCI hosted the North Carolina State Republican convention. The EBCI chief announced the tribe’s support of Tillis, saying, “We need people to represent the entire state of North Carolina.”

A 2013 report by OpenSecrets.org shows the EBCI spent a total of $180,000 on casino and gaming lobbying efforts. According to Followthemoney.org, EBCI contributions have tracked with the political winds. In 2008, the EBCI gave 86 percent of its contributions to Democrats. Since then, the tribe has significantly shifted, giving more to the GOP.

The Eastern Band’s public relations representative could not be reached for comment.

Asked about Lumbee gaming interests, Brooks responded, “It took us many elections just to get a liquor store … but it happened. We just want the opportunity to help ourselves.”

In 2000, tribal voters in Washington state were pivotal in the unseating of Sen. Slade Gorton (R). In 2002, Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) was reelected to his seat by 524 votes, helped tremendously by the Oglala Sioux reservation.

More recently, Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) won their seats in the 2006 and 2012 elections by 1 percentage point. Native American voters were overwhelmingly credited with the victories.  

Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan organization and advocate of voter participation, reports a 9 percent increase in voter registration among Native Americans from 2008-2014.

Brooks said Senate passage of the measure would “absolutely” mobilize the tribe in support of Hagan.

Asked what he would do if he was the incumbent senator running, Brooks told The Hill, “I have been doing this for almost 40 years. It’s [going to] to come down to a 1 percent [margin], and we’re that 1 percent. … It reminds me how ironic history can be that our poor tribe can now determine the 2015 future of the United States Senate and thus all the promise makers.”

“[A Senate vote] is very important. It’s never had to go to the floor, only committee,” Brooks said. 

 “As Speaker of the House, yes [we’ve] had a relationship with Tillis. I haven’t had quite the one-on-one relationship with Hagan since she’s been in D.C.” said Brooks, who regularly visits Washington to push the recognition issue.

Chris Hayden, press secretary for Hagan, said the campaign plans to target Native Americans in North Carolina as part of its voter turnout strategy.

“Full federal recognition is critical to the heritage and cultural identity of more than 55,000 North Carolinians and the economic vitality of the entire Lumbee community,” Hagan said in a statement. “This is an issue of fairness, and I am committed to fighting in the Senate to give the Lumbee Tribe the full recognition they deserve.”

Hagan and her aides stopped short of promising a vote on the floor this year.