- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 14, 2002

GRANTS, N.M. Lemonade was flowing Saturday afternoon over Labor Day weekend at a small Republican gala in this dusty town off Interstate 40.
Everyone had had his fill of baked beans, chips and hot dogs before sitting back to view a lineup of politicians seeking to garner votes in a county that has traditionally voted 70 percent to 30 percent in favor of Democrats.
Among the six candidates for various local and statewide offices standing on the sidewalk by the New Mexico Mining Museum, five of them were white men. The sixth was a Navajo woman.
Sharon Clahchischilliage (pronounced claw-chish-chill-edge) is running for secretary of state, seeking to become the highest-ranking elected female American Indian in the country. There are some female American Indians who represent state legislative districts, but none holding statewide offices. But more and more American Indians, like those who will be showcasing their culture this weekend during the National Powwow on the Mall, are claiming a bigger piece of the American pie.
"Other Navajos are shocked I'm running," said Ms. Clahchischilliage, who is running against a three-term incumbent. "But when they see my presentation, a look of pride comes over their faces and then I know I've got them."
Some 255,543 people belong to the Navajo Nation, making it the country's and New Mexico's largest Indian tribe. But her race is an uphill battle against Democrat Rebecca Vigil-Giron, the country's lone Hispanic secretary of state.
"I'm surprised she's a Republican," Gary C. Anderson, a history professor at the University of Oklahoma, said of Ms. Clahchischilliage.
"She's running for a party that stole a huge amount of land from Indians in New Mexico" between 1866 and 1912, he adds, when ownership of some tribal lands, along with Spanish land grants, was transferred by Republican lawyers to cattle barons.
But 90 years ago is ancient history to Ms. Clahchischilliage, 54. Dressed in a denim skirt, a long white-sleeved blouse and clunky silver jewelry, she blasts the record of her opponent, whose office oversaw the state's bungling of the 2000 presidential election.
TV networks called the state for Vice President Al Gore on election night, but late votes then pushed then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in front the following weekend. Ultimately, Mr. Gore took the state by 366 votes, despite Republican claims he would have lost a recount.
On election night, Ms. Clahchischilliage, who had a job in the District working for a health-advocacy program for urban Indians, was watching the returns from New Mexico.
"The media asked who ran the elections out there," she says, "and whether they even had a secretary of state. We were all sounding like a hick state, and I didn't like that. So I decided to step up to the plate."
She was then nominated for a commissioner's position at Health and Human Services, but waited fruitlessly for a year for the appointment to go through. But with no definite word from the Bush administration and a February 2002 filing deadline approaching, she moved 2,100 miles back to New Mexico and began her campaign.
"I want to get in and clean up and not be a national joke and not be a state joke," said Ms. Clahchischilliage, who immediately hired a 24-year-old campaign manager, a 20-year-old field manager and scheduler and a 31-year-old finance director.
She decided to make mandatory photo IDs at the polls her campaign issue, a requirement opposed by the New Mexico Legislature and Mrs. Vigil-Giron on the grounds it would discriminate against minority voters. At present, all that is required is a voter's signature.
Mrs. Vigil-Giron also points out only 11 states require photo IDs.
"A lot of elderly do not have voter ID," she says. "It's also a form of intimidating people at the polling place where they cannot exercise their right to vote. It's also an issue of administration. Long lines are going to be an issue.
"If people have to stop and dig in their pockets and or go back to their cars to get ID, it will be an administrative nightmare on Election Day."
Mrs. Clahchischilliage says "minority voters" like her would have no problem producing ID.
"We [Indians] have more ID than the average American citizen," she says. "Indian tribes have some of the best ID in the country," adding they must show they are members of a federally recognized tribe to get Bureau of Indian Affairs services and benefits from Indian Health Services.
Voter fraud has been an issue in this state of 1.8 million. On Aug. 30, the chief county clerk in Dona Ana County and a subordinate were indicted in connection with how the office handled the June 4 primary election. Indicted last month on 13 felony charges and one petty misdemeanor, they face up to 19 years in prison if convicted.
In the 2000 election, the discovery of a vote-counting error in Dona Ana County pushed Mr. Gore into the lead. A misaligned paper clip, which partially obscured the digit "6" in the number 620, had prompted a poll worker to record 120 absentee votes for Mr. Gore, throwing the election off by 500 votes.
Ms. Clahchischilliage says that Mrs. Vigil-Giron should have prevented the fiasco. "States all over the country pulled together commissions to examine their elections but not New Mexico," she says.
Ms. Clahchischilliage grew up on the Navajo reservation in the northwestern corner of the state and has some government experience as a former Indian liaison for U.S. Rep. Heather A. Wilson, New Mexico Republican.
But she was a total unknown in state politics until she appeared at the state convention last March. However, no Republican has won the secretary of state's office in 72 years.
In fact, most Americans knew little about such state positions until two years ago, when Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris' certification of a razor-thin Bush victory which swung 25 electoral votes into the Bush camp earned her a place in history.
The last Republican candidate for this position lost by 11,131 votes. But in the same election, 27,093 votes were cast by Indians. Ms. Clahchischilliage figures that if she can get some of the Indian voters who usually vote Democratic to support her, the office is hers.
"We think her chances are excellent," state Republican Party Chairman John Dendahl says. "More than 80 percent of New Mexicans support positive identification before they go to vote. The current secretary of state says this would intimidate minority voters. If they are old enough to vote, they are old enough to buy a beer and they have to present a picture ID for that."
By placing her face on billboards around the state and publicizing her justcallmesharon.com Web site, she is bucking tribal customs. Navajos as a rule do not stare people in the eyes, nor ask for money or boast about their capabilities.
"I'm going against the norms of my culture," she admits, "just by being a candidate."

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