Native Americans Angry With Heitkamp Over Support For Keystone Pipeline

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The Native American vote was key to giving Senator-elect Heidi Heitkamp her tiny margin of victory over Republican Rick Berg, allowing Democrats to hang on by the skin of their teeth to a Senate seat they’ve held since 1960.

But another key part of Heitkamp’s campaign was promising to stand up to President Obama and other Democrats on the issue of the Keystone pipeline. Both Obama, who Heitkamp said she voted for, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who directed millions in political spending to North Dakota in support of Heitkamp, have been the chief obstacles to building the pipeline at the national level. Heitkamp made campaign promises saying she’d diverge from Obama and Reid on the issue, but that is angering some Native Americans who oppose the pipeline.

Which may be the reason why Heitkamp, while expressing confidence that the pipeline will ultimately be built, so far hasn’t exactly gone out of her way to lend her support to that political battle.

WASHINGTON—There’s an early rupture in the bond that some American Indians had hoped to forge with newly elected Senator Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, who has come out strongly in favor of immediate development of the Keystone XL Pipeline and is urging President Barack Obama to grant approval for its construction right away.

Throughout her campaign, Heitkamp said she supported the pipeline—which could harm the water, culture and government-to-government status of tribes—but Indian activists hoped she would take the time to reconsider her position if the tribal vote helped put her over the edge in the November election.

Indeed, the tribal vote did help her win her heated race against Republican Rick Berg—a fact that Native Americans have been pointing to nationwide in illustrating the importance of the Indian vote in close elections. But in the week following her victory, Heitkamp was quick to reiterate her support for the pipeline’s development, and tribal consultation doesn’t appear to be playing any role in her thinking.

“I’ve always supported the Keystone pipeline,” Heitkamp told Ed Schultz on MSNBC on November 14 when asked about her position now that she is set to become a political force in Washington. And she went further, saying, “I think the president’s going to approve it.”

Some tribal activists are predicting protests if Heitkamp continues her support for the pipeline:

Joe Valandra, a tribal consultant, said he foresees many more protests by tribal citizens in the near future if politicians like Heitkamp don’t take the time to contemplate the high stakes for Indians in this situation.

“Unfortunately, protests and other [forms of activism] are likely necessary,” Valandra said. “I have also found that posts on social media work well to start the process.”

Valandra said Heitkamp also might do well to study how the Indian vote played helped her in the election. “I don’t know if she has fully realized the extent to which her victory is attributable to the Indian vote,” he said. “[And] I doubt she has consulted with many tribes at all on any issues.”

The Native American opposition to the pipeline puzzles me. The environmental arguments don’t make sense as pipelines are much safer than trucks or trains when it comes to transporting oil. You’d think the North Dakota reservations impacted by the oil boom would support the Keystone Pipeline if for no other reason than to get the trucks off their roads. They also argue that the pipeline would be built over areas of land they find sacred, but that’s a tough sell. As a reader emailed to me this morning, “When your history is that of nomadic, animist tribes, every piece of earth can qualify as sacred.”

But I digress.

Heitkamp’s margin of victory over Rick Berg was less than 3,000 votes, meaning that without the Native American vote we’d almost certainly be talking about Senator-elect Rick Berg right now.

The problems Heitkamp now faces from her Native American constituency is a microcosm for what will be the challenge of her first term in office. Heitkamp is a very, very liberal politician who campaigned as a moderately conservative candidate. She enjoyed support from liberal groups nationally, and liberal voter blocs in North Dakota like the Native Americans, on the assumption that she wouldn’t govern nearly so conservatively as she campaigned.

The problem for Heitkamp is that if she moves back to the left to placate her liberal supporters she diminishes the likelihood that she’ll be re-elected in 2018. But if she governs more conservatively, she may alienate that base of support and it may not turn out to give her the edge should her next campaign to the Senate be as close as her first one.

What will work in Heitkamp’s favor is that Senate terms are six years long, which leaves a lot of time for her to vote liberally at the beginning of her term and come back to the right nearer the end of the term. Her Democrat predecessors Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan were masters of that strategy, though the wild card is that in this digital age it’s a lot harder for politicians like Heitkamp to control the narrative, and a lot easier for voters to be reminded of past transgressions.

It will be an interesting puzzle for Heitkamp to solve.

In related news, the Washington Post has named Heitkamp the “Best Candidate” for 2012, though I’m not sure that Heitkamp deserves credit for winning so much as Berg deserves credit for losing. Heitkamp didn’t make any mistakes, but barely holding on to a Senate seat Democrats have held since 1960 isn’t the soaring accomplishment some are making it out to be.

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com. In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.

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