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Lawmakers hope to form coalition

By Judy Gibbs Robinson Published: March 13, 2005
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/> Party affiliation is less important than getting Indians active in politics and elected to office, McCarty said.

"I think Native Americans being involved, regardless of the party, helps native people across the board," he said.

In Oklahoma, it should come as no surprise that Indian votes are going to Republicans, said former Sen. Kelly Haney, a Democrat who believes he is the only full-blood Indian to ever serve in the Legislature.

"Native American people are much like the general population. There was a time, you remember, when most Oklahomans were Democrats. So you shouldn't expect anything different from native people in the same society, active in the same work force, going to the same schools," said Haney, a member of the Seminole Nation who served in the House from 1980-1986 and in the Senate from 1986-2002.

Take Johnson-Billy, for example. She was a Democrat until five or six years ago when she suddenly realized the Republican Party came closer to representing her pro-family views.

The epiphany came while she was power-walking with fellow Chickasaw Neal McCaleb, a Republican who served as Oklahoma transportation secretary and later as assistant interior secretary, heading the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"I realized my views more fit what I guess you'd call a compassionate Republican or a compassionate conservative," said Johnson-Billy, who also includes former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts, who is black, and the late state Sen. Helen Cole, who was Indian, among her political mentors.

"My mentors were all minorities. Those were all people of color," she said.

It does not bother her, Johnson-Billy said, that the Republican Party is also home to those who oppose Indian sovereignty and who advocate so-called "English Only" laws that might catch native languages in their sweep -- measures she opposes.

"I just say, 'I respectfully disagree. You go on and promote what you believe and I'll go on and promote what I believe,'" Johnson-Billy said.

McCarter, the only Democrat among the identified Indian legislators, said if it comes to forming an Indian caucus, bipartisanship will be important. He believes it can be done, pointing to the successes of a bipartisan caucus of rural lawmakers .

"I don't think it's insurmountable," McCarter said of the party divide among Indian lawmakers.

Black lawmakers have had a caucus for at least 20 years. Women organized one last spring, but Indian legislators have never organized. Haney could not say why.

"I don't have any answer to that. It wasn't discussed," Haney said.

NewsOK.com has disabled the comments for this article.

Indians in the Legislature

This list includes Oklahoma lawmakers identified as American Indian by the National Conference of State Legislatures or by two House freshmen who are compiling their own list. All are members of the House of Representatives:

Chris Benge, R-Tulsa, Cherokee

Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, Creek

Doug Cox, R-Grove, Creek

Shane Jett, R-Norman, Cherokee

Lisa Johnson-Billy, R-Purcell, Chickasaw-Choctaw

Steve Martin, R-Bartlesville, affiliation unknown

Ray McCarter, D-Marlow, Chickasaw

Doug Miller, R-Norman, Cherokee

Paul Wesselhoft, R-Moore, Citizen Band Potawatomie

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