GOP has a chance to sway voters in Montana, tribal leaders say
By Matt Gouras -- Associated Press
HELENA, Mont. (AP) - A tribal chairman picked to headline the Montana Republican Party's winter meeting says the GOP will have to work to take American Indian voters away from Democrats.
But James Steele Jr., chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal council, said Democrats can no longer take the tribal vote for granted.
Steele was scheduled to speak at the Jan. 26 banquet of the Montana Republican Party's winter kickoff in Billings. He said it's important that Republicans are stressing more dialogue with tribes and their leaders.
''I think it's a realization of the importance of the Native American vote in the last few elections, and especially in the last election,'' Steele said. ''I think the Democratic Party has reached out to Native Americans in a variety of ways ... that the Republican Party has not really done.''
Montana GOP Chairman Erik Iverson said Republicans are reaching out to voters on reservations. He said the Republican Party in the past didn't try hard enough to talk to American Indian voters about the party's message.
''Part of the problem for Republicans is that we just didn't show up,'' Iverson said.
The chairman was elected last summer with vice-chairman Liane Johnson, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe.
Iverson said the Republican fiscal conservative message featuring lower taxes will work on reservations like it does everywhere else. And he said the Republican platform can help deal with problems on reservations such as high unemployment.
At the same time, Steele can talk to Republicans about the success he has had in building coalitions in winning elections, Iverson said.
''We've got to end this era of confrontation in Helena, what we saw from both sides last legislative session,'' Iverson said.
Democrats said Republicans will need to deal with issues important to American Indians if they hope to succeed, rather than by opposing initiatives like Indian Education for All such as some Republican lawmakers have in the past.
''We appreciate any support in carrying the load and being of assistance to the Native American communities,'' said Art Noonan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party. ''We hope the outreach and sincerity doesn't end when chairman Steele leaves the building.''
Steele said he is not partisan. He said he has voted for both Republicans and Democrats.
And he believes all elected leaders can learn from the job Gov. Brian Schweitzer has done in reaching out to American Indians.
''He set the bar for political leaders in Montana; if you really want to get things done in Montana, you have to reach out to everyone, and that includes Indian people,'' Steele said.
He said Republicans are taking a ''step in the right direction.''
''But you are not going to get Native American people to overnight start voting for the Republican candidates,'' Steele said. ''It will take time. It will take time understanding the Native American issues.''