Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is refusing to accept campaign contributions from American Indian tribes for his presidential campaign in an effort that tribal representatives believe is intended to distance him from the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.
Lobbyists for American Indian tribes say McCain’s refusal is part of a broader stigma that has adhered to the tribes since it was revealed that Abramoff was converting millions of dollars of tribal money into campaign contributions and donations to charities in support of his lobbying activities.
McCain has not turned down money from other controversial interest groups, including some he has investigated in the Senate. For example, the Arizonan accepted several thousands of dollars from the office of the commissioner of Major League Baseball as he was leading the charge to force baseball to adopt tougher policies against steroids.
McCain campaign spokesman Danny Diaz confirmed that the presidential campaign is not accepting money from tribes, but said the decision on tribal money is about tribal welfare, not Abramoff. “This began when he assumed the chairmanship of the [Indian Affairs] Committee” in the 109th Congress, Diaz said, because McCain “believed their money would be put to better use elsewhere,” given the social and economic needs on many reservations.
Diaz added that McCain has a strong record of supporting tribes and advancing issues that are important to tribes. The ban applies only to contributions from organized tribal organizations, such as political action committees, not from individual tribal members.
McCain took over the chairmanship of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in January 2005, and led an investigation into Abramoff’s dealings with American Indian tribes.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, from 1998 to 2004, McCain took in $92,150 from “Indian gaming” interests, a category that includes all donations from tribes, including individual tribe members. In 2000, when he last ran for president, McCain took $39,400 from tribes, according to the CRP data. In the 2006 cycle, McCain received no money from donors in this category.
McCain has not refused contributions from other interest groups that he had jurisdiction over in Congress. For example, in the 2004 election cycle, while he was chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, McCain took in $280,000 from the communications and electronics industries, according to the CRP database.
McCain’s defenders argue that corporate donors do not face the same kind of social welfare needs that many tribes do.
The Senator also took checks from Major League Baseball while he was leading the charge in Congress for tougher polices against steroids. In May 2005, McCain introduced legislation to force the MLB to adopt tough steroid testing policies. On Nov. 15 of that year, he issued a press release praising the MLB and its players association for reaching agreement on a new, tougher performance-enhancing drug testing regime without the need for legislation. Five days earlier, he had received a $2,000 campaign contribution from the Office of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball Political Action Committee.
Alia Maisonet, spokeswoman for the Arizona-based Gila River Indian Community, said the tribe has had a strong and long-standing relationship with McCain, and has worked with the Senator on many issues.
Nevertheless, she added, “We do view it as unfortunate that the Senator feels the need to take this position because it implies that the participation of tribal governments in the American political system is somehow inappropriate.”
A lobbyist who represents tribal clients in Washington said, “McCain has sworn off Indian money for his campaign, [which] sent a chill through tribal lobbyists in town,” because it implied that “Indian money was dirty.”
As Roll Call reported Tuesday, American Indian representatives feel they have been broadly tainted by the Abramoff scandal, and that Members of Congress have been much more hesitant to publicly support legislative efforts on behalf of tribes.