WASHINGTON – Mitt Romney’s campaign has confirmed that the Republican candidate for U.S. president met with a group of tribal leaders on August 17.
“[I]t was a private finance event, and we don’t comment beyond that,” said Rick Gorka, a spokesman for the campaign. He did not respond to questions on important details of the event, including what tribes the leaders were from, and how much they donated.
The fundraiser follows one by President Barack Obama’s campaign in July during which $1.5 million was raised from tribal leaders. A similar January Obama campaign event took in $1 million from tribal leaders.
According to multiple sources who are familiar with the Romney event, it was held in Boston. Many tribal leaders were invited, and approximately 12 were in attendance. Attendees reportedly stressed government-to-government relations and self-reliance that is outgrowth of federal-Indian policies of tribal self-determination and self-governance.
“I thought the meeting was very positive,” said John Tahsuda, a tribal lobbyist with Navigators Global, who is advising the Romney-Ryan campaign on Indian issues, as he did for the McCain-Palin camp in 2008. “Governor Romney spent quality time with the tribal leaders, engaging in a real give and take discussion. He expressed his understanding and support of tribes’ inherent sovereignty. He also expressed his support for and desire to strengthen the federal policy of self-governance”
“It was great to see Governor Romney set aside time to sit down and listen to a small group of tribal leaders at the very moment his campaign hit the afterburners and shot toward the convention,” added Philip Baker-Shenk, a partner with the Holland & Knight law firm, who focuses on Indian and tribal issues. “It will take many more such events for the Romney-Ryan campaign to catch up to the unprecedented Obama-Biden reelection campaign outreach to Indian country, but every journey begins with a big first step.”
Eric Eberhard, a law professor at Seattle University who previously worked as a staff director on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs for Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, agrees that Romney has much to do to catch up with Obama on Indian issues. “The campaign website does not include any references to tribes or to issues that are important to the tribes,” he said. “I do not know of any plans by the campaign to hold events on any Indian reservations, or to try to organize anywhere in Indian country.”
The Romney-Ryan campaign has not responded to questions on whether those moves are in the works, with Tahsuda saying, “I am not sure what the campaign’s plans are for visiting any geographic area of the country, or for releasing any policy statements. That will probably be dictated by how the fall campaign unfolds.”
Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-California, helped the Republican National Committee and Romney-Ryan campaign organize the meeting, and was said to be working on it for at least a month, according to those familiar with her effort.
The lone American Indian in U.S. Congress, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, was supportive of the meeting, and he is excited to see what comes from it, according to his office.
Rep Don. Young, R-Alaska, and chair of the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, is confident that the Romney-Ryan campaign is developing a sound tribal affairs policy paper with self-determination as a guiding principle, according to his office.
“Rep. Young is pleased that Governor Romney is taking the time to meet with tribal leaders from across the nation,” said spokesman Luke Miller. “Congressman Young looks forward to what a Romney-Ryan administration would mean for tribal self-determination.”
Earlier in the month Romney selected Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, to be his running mate. Ryan’s record on Indian issues is respected by some in Indian country, while scrutinized by others. Most agree that his record on Indian issues is stronger than that of Romney. Ryan’s wife, Janna, has been reported in the press as having some Chickasaw heritage, although that has not been backed up by the campaign or those close to her yet, and she is not an enrolled citizen.
“Now that Representative Ryan has joined the ticket there may be some emphasis on the issues that are important to the tribes, but as far as I know that has not happened yet,” Eberhard said. “Ryan has only been on the ticket for [a short time] and may not have had time to focus on tribal issues, but with his familiarity with tribes in Wisconsin and Oklahoma, along with his voting record in the House, he probably has a better grasp of tribal issues than Governor Romney does and may be more receptive to working with the tribes.”
The Romney-Ryan ticket also has a lot of work to do in order to catch up with the Republican McCain-Palin ticket of 2008 in terms of its outreach to Indian country.