Opposition to Haaland may bring political costs, tribal representatives warn

Treatment of first Native American Cabinet nominee spurs backlash

Tribal leaders and their lobbyists are upset with the treatment Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., got following her nomination to be Interior secretary.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Tribal leaders and their lobbyists are upset with the treatment Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., got following her nomination to be Interior secretary. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 15, 2021 at 1:31pm

Some Native American tribal leaders, and lobbyists who represent them, say they may withhold campaign contributions to senators who worked against the nomination of Rep. Deb Haaland, whose expected confirmation as Interior secretary Monday would make her the first Native American Cabinet official. 

Haaland, a Democrat who won a second term representing New Mexico’s 1st District in November, had bipartisan support in the Senate. But several Republicans led opposition to her confirmation, raising the ire of people in Indian Country.

“Tribes have become a political force, with the economic success tribes have had in various industries,” said Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation in Connecticut, whose holdings include Foxwoods Resort Casino. “So we have political influence. We have votes that move presidential elections and economic success to put our money where our mouth is, and we’ll absolutely remember those senators who attacked her.”

Butler and other tribal leaders stressed that their policy issues have largely been bipartisan and that they routinely work with, and donate to, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Butler’s tribe donated more than $200,000 in the 2020 elections, according to a summary of federal election disclosures by the Center for Responsive Politics. The donations include contributions to the House Republicans’ campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. 

“Indian Country is watching this very closely, and I think you can expect the fact that many tribes will take this vote into consideration as they consider their political donations,” said Larry Rosenthal, a partner at Spirit Rock Consulting, a lobbying firm that specializes in representing Native American tribal clients.  

Tribal representatives pointed to a handful of Republicans who led opposition to Haaland’s nomination, including Sens. Steve Daines of Montana and Wyoming’s Cynthia Lummis and John Barrasso.

Daines, who got $2,800 from the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and more than $35,000 more from other tribes in his reelection campaign last year, said he was sticking up for energy jobs in his state. An aide did not respond to a request for comment. Lummis, who won her first Senate term in November, has called Haaland a “radical.”

Alaska’s GOP senators — Lisa Murkowski, who is up for reelection in 2022 and Dan Sullivan, who won a fresh term last year — have voted in support of Haaland and are expected to vote to confirm her Monday. Same for newly reelected Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, who was swayed by a tribal letter, according to HuffPost.

Tribal representatives also said that Democrats’ support for Haaland could help rally Native American support, including for senators up for reelection in 2022 like Arizona’s Mark Kelly.

“Deb Haaland's nomination to serve as Secretary of the Interior and be our first-ever Native American Cabinet secretary is enormously consequential, and the disrespectful treatment of her from Senate Republicans including GOP leadership during her confirmation process has been a disgrace,”  said DSCC spokesperson Shea Necheles in a statement. “Republicans should be held accountable for their opposition to this historic and highly qualified nominee.”

The Senate GOP campaign arm did not respond to a request for comment. 

Though some Republican sources said privately that the idea of withholding donations sounded like a quid pro quo, such warnings are unlikely to trigger any campaign finance or bribery allegations, ethics lawyers say. 

“From my perspective, the absence of any linkage to a contributor’s financial interests demonstrates a lack of corrupt intent which is a necessary requirement in a bribery or public corruption case involving campaign contributions,” said Caleb Burns, a partner at the law firm Wiley, who specializes in election law and government ethics.

Recent examples exist where activists ginned up donations against sitting lawmakers because of a specific confirmation vote, as was the case with a fund set up to raise money against Collins for her 2018 vote to confirm Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

Even tribal leaders who declined to discuss future political donations said they were hurt by the fierce opposition to Haaland. 

“It has been particularly painful for Tribal Nations to witness the appalling lack of civility and decorum toward the first Native American to ever be nominated for a cabinet position in U.S. History,” said Shannon Holsey, president of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians, in an email to CQ Roll Call. “Moreover, her confirmation will also afford the United States a historic opportunity to repair and rebuild its fractured relationship with millions of American Indians and Alaska Natives for whom it has solemn trust and treaty obligations.”

Melanie Benjamin, chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota, called Haaland’s nomination, and likely confirmation, “a huge historical event in Indian country.” As such, she added, “I’m really troubled by the loud and rough talk that even some of our friends among the Republicans have repeatedly hurled against Haaland.”