U.S. Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-California, currently in a dead heat in her race for re-election with Democratic challenger Raul Ruiz, has recently put out a series of ads, statements, a press release, and campaign tweets indicating that Ruiz is anti-American for his past support of causes identified with American Indians.
In 1997, Ruiz was arrested as a college student during a protest of the Thanksgiving holiday in Plymouth, Massachusetts that was intended to highlight Native American roles in American history and misrepresentations of Indians in contemporary American society. The event got out of hand, police pepper sprayed him and others, and charges were eventually dropped. City leaders ended up paying $100,000 toward a Native American scholarship fund, and they erected a plaque commemorating the event and Indian heritage.
In Bono Mack’s new ads, a serious-sounding narrator, accompanied by ominous music, asserts that Ruiz is “attacking Thanksgiving and our American values.” In a recent debate, the congresswoman sharpened the attack, saying, “He led protests against the celebration of Thanksgiving , no joke … because he opposes what Thanksgiving stands for and what it represents.”
Bono Mack’s campaign has also claimed that Ruiz read a letter aloud at the protest expressing support for a pardon of Leonard Peltier, an American Indian Movement activist who was convicted of shooting two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975.
The Ruiz campaign says the candidate doesn’t remember expressing support for Peltier and that he didn’t support Peltier then or now. That’s in contrast to some Native Americans who believe Peltier was wrongfully convicted, and who call for his pardon to this day.
Still, Bono Mack campaign strategists, John Pezzullo and Marc Troast, have re-tweeted messages on Twitter indicating that Ruiz is a “radical liberal” for his participation in the Native-focused event, and they have re-tweeted messages claiming he supported Peltier. Their campaign also has released audio, which they say is Ruiz reading a statement in support of Peltier. The Ruiz campaign has not denied the authenticity of the audio, and says if Ruiz did read it, he was caught up in the moment and did not believe what he was reading.
The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians is part of a growing chorus of Indians who are concerned with the Bono Mack political strategy. The tribe has put out a statement calling her ads “an outrageous and unacceptable insult to all Native Americans.”
“We are not endorsing either candidate at this time,” said Tribal Council Chairman Jeff L. Grubbe. “However, we call on Rep. Bono Mack to unequivocally repudiate this attempt to portray standing up for Native Americans as somehow un-American.”
The Tribal Association of Sovereign Indian Nations has also sent Bono Mack a letter expressing concern about her attempt to politicize issues that are important to some Native American citizens, according to those close to the organization. A top concern is that Bono Mack is calling into question certain beliefs that some Native Americans agree with and many more sympathize with.
“We certainly understand the rough and tumble nature of political campaigns, and we know that sometimes candidates say things that they later regret,” according to the letter, signed by the organization’s Indian leaders. “As an agent of the federal government, however, you should be working to overcome the wounds of past wrongs done to Indian people, not deepen them…. We sincerely hope that in the closing weeks of this election you steer away from these unworthy and divisive tactics in favor of bringing people together to solve our shared problems not only in your district but throughout our nation.”
Patrick Boland, a spokesman for Ruiz, says he can understand why some Natives feel offended. “Dr. Ruiz has been defending this pretty strongly,” Boland said. “It’s absolutely shameful that Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack – who represents thousands of Native Americans – would attack Dr. Ruiz for voicing support for Native American heritage…. Nothing could be more American than standing up for Native American constituents.”
Pezzullo and Troast have not responded to requests for comment, but Bono Mack’s Washington office is defending her Native-focused record. Ken Johnson, a spokesman for the congresswoman, said she played a lead role in setting up an Indian fundraiser for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in August, where he met with several tribal leaders. He noted that she serves as vice-chair of the House Native American Caucus, and she has supported and pushed for several Indian-focused pieces of legislation and funding, especially for some tribes in California.
Johnson added that Bono Mack has supported a slow-down of legislation on Internet gaming to try to ensure tribal interests are addressed, and he said she supports a legislative fix to the controversial 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Carcieri v. Salazar) that called into question the ability of the Interior Department to take lands into trust for tribes.
Boland said that every vote will matter in this close race. “No candidate can afford to alienate Indian voters,” he said, adding that the campaign has estimated there to be up to 9,000 Indian voters in the district. “The congresswoman is playing to a far-right crowd right now.”
Ruiz, who is of Hispanic heritage, said he continues to strongly support Native Americans. “They are our first Americans and we owe them a lot of respect, and I wanted to express my pride in our Native American past,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network in an interview with writer Lynn Armitage. “[W]e need to respect our Native American heritage and honor their contribution to the American story.”