Under fire, Cherokees hire CBC’s former director in lobbying push
By Kevin Bogardus
Posted: 10/17/07 07:46 PM [ET]
The Cherokee Nation has hired the Congressional Black Caucus’s (CBC) former top official as part of a lobbying effort against punitive legislation proposed on Capitol Hill.
Paul Brathwaite, once the CBC’s executive director, is part of a five-person team at the Podesta Group that has registered to lobby against a bill, among other provisions, that would punish the tribe for amending its constitution so that it effectively excluded thousands of black Americans. The group is known as the “Freedmen,” descendants of Cherokee-owned slaves who later gained citizenship rights.
The tribe amended its constitution in March to exclude from the tribe anyone who did not have a Cherokee ancestor based on 1906 census rolls. The new definition meant that 2,800 Freedmen would not be counted as part of the 270,000-member Cherokee Nation.
In response, members of the CBC have pushed a bill that would cut off all federal funds to the tribe — roughly $300 million per year. The legislation would also suspend the tribe’s gaming license and authorize investigations into its gambling business by the Department of Justice and the Government Accountability Office.
The bill now has 23 co-sponsors, but has yet to be marked up by the House Judiciary and Natural Resources committees, which share jurisdiction on the issue. Rep. Diane Watson (D-Calif.), the bill’s chief sponsor, has distributed a “Dear Colleague” letter to other CBC members and is pushing for a joint committee hearing to be held early next year, according to an aide for the congresswoman.
“The stakes are extremely high,” said Chad Smith, the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. He added that Watson’s bill could cut off healthcare funds for 126,000 Cherokees and housing subsidies for another 7,300.
Smith said his tribe was impressed by the Podesta Group as a whole, and did not hire the firm solely because of Brathwaite’s relationship with CBC members.
“We looked at the firm and their ability to get our message out, not necessarily the individuals,” Smith said.
The extent of Brathwaite’s involvement is unclear. His former boss, Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), has not met with the lobbyist and said he has “no impression that [Brathwaite] will be personally involved with this dispute.”
“We separate relationships with lobbyists, whether Paul, [Tony Podesta] or the chief himself,” added Watt.
But Braithwaite did meet with the staff for Watson, who proposed legislation in June condemning the Cherokees for their March vote.
Tempers began to rise in September when the House considered American Indian housing legislation. Lawmakers passed by voice vote a Watt amendment that would cut off the Cherokees’ housing funds. (passed by a voice vote? - well, that sounds like a well reasoned approach)
But Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) amended the provision so it would not take effect until litigation between the Cherokees and the Freedmen is settled.
Watson kept up the pressure, however, and hosted a panel in late September to discuss the Freedmen at the CBC’s annual legislative conference. (Indians need not apply - although it's their governments that are affected)
That week, the Cherokees countered with full-page ads in The Hill and Roll Call that condemned Watson’s bill as well as a press release questioning her panel’s fairness. Days later, Watson went to the House floor to lambaste the lobbying campaign. (good, we'll have a record of Cherokee bashing)
Even before hiring the Podesta Group, the tribe had already built up a strong Washington presence. The tribe spent $1.2 million on litigation, lobbying and public relations for fiscal 2007 and plans to spend $1.5 million for 2008, according to budget documents provided by Cherokee representatives.
Lanny Davis, a partner at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe and a top fundraiser for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) presidential campaign, is handling much of the litigation for the tribe. Former Rep. Brad Carson (D-Okla.), now chief executive officer of the Cherokee Nation Businesses, is also part of the effort.
Davis recommended the Podesta Group for the job to the Cherokees. Its founder, Anthony Podesta, is a well-known Democratic lobbyist and fundraiser.
Despite the constitutional change, Davis noted that thousands of blacks remain in the tribe. He also noted the tribe has granted temporary citizenship to the Freedmen until all litigation is completed, and offered to pay for genealogical research for those wishing to find out whether they have a Cherokee ancestor.
“It is completely false and completely unfair to suggest racial motivation by the Cherokees,” said Davis about the March vote.
But the conflict between the Freedmen and the Cherokee tribe has become more complicated as lawsuits have proliferated in both federal and tribal courts. Smith, the Cherokee chief, argues that congressional intervention in the matter would disrupt the judicial process.
“The courts should just sort it out,” he said. (ah, the CBC has no confidence in the courts)
But Watson said the tribe’s March amendment breaches an 1866 treaty with the U.S. government that granted citizenship rights to the Freedmen.
“If you break your agreement with us, we should break our agreement with you,” said the California Democrat. Smith argues that the 1866 treaty did not grant full Cherokee citizenship to the Freedmen.
Meanwhile, the Freedmen have picked up additional support in their battle. The Downey McGrath Group has offered to work in support of Watson’s bill pro bono. (whoa, pro bono, the CBC in need of funds or something - what's this pro bono stuff - oh, my mistake this is Washington and the need to be seen)
“We are going to prove a good cause does not need money to succeed,” said Tom Downey, former Democratic congressman from New York and the group’s chairman. (Well, that's for sure, however, you do need the courts to figure out what the law is you're trying to shove down our throats. When did Cherokee Bashing become a good cause - yikes - anyone taking note of this!)