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Law & Principles

Ray Carter | July 13, 2023

Document shows Cherokee political donations favor Democrats

Ray Carter

Oklahoma politicians often refer to tribal governments as state “partners.” A recently obtained Cherokee Nation document indicates the tribe financially partners with politicians from both parties through campaign contributions, but especially with Democratic lawmakers.

The document, obtained by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs from a whistleblower, shows that the Cherokee Nation’s proposed 2022 political contributions heavily favored Democratic lawmakers, even though Republicans control both chambers of the Oklahoma Legislature with supermajority support.

A separate Cherokee Nation document obtained by OCPA indicates a substantial share of tribal political campaign funding may have come from vehicle tax collections the tribe receives thanks to state-tribal compacts that are now the source of contention at the Oklahoma Capitol.

A summary box on the campaign-funding document, which tallies the proposed campaign donations, says that Democrats were to receive slightly less money overall than Republicans with 49 percent of proposed contributions going to Democrats and associated political action committees (PACs) and 51 percent to Republicans.

But that total is skewed by a proposed $30,000 donation to the U.S. Senate campaign of Markwayne Mullin, a Republican, which was at least six-times greater than the proposed donation to any other Republican federal officeholder, as well as the practice of scattering small donations among many Republican lawmakers at the state level.

Careful review of the document shows the Cherokee Nation was prepared to maximize financial support to Democratic candidates and entities.

The documents show that tribal officials recommended giving money to nearly all incumbent state Democratic lawmakers while donating to far fewer Republican incumbents in the Oklahoma Legislature. The document also shows that the average proposed donation to Democratic lawmakers was far larger than the average donation to Republican lawmakers.

The Cherokee Nation document recommended contributions to 78 percent of Senate Democratic incumbents, but just 23 percent of Senate Republican incumbents. In state House races, the document recommended giving donations to 89 percent of House Democratic incumbents in 2022, and just 73 percent of House Republican incumbents.

Not only would a larger share of Democrats receive financial support from the tribe, but Democratic candidates would also receive larger donations, on average, under the campaign donations endorsed in the document.

The document called for the tribe to give 75 percent more to the average Oklahoma House Democrat than to the average House Republican, and 57 percent more to the average Senate Democrat than to the average Senate Republican.

The Cherokee Nation document also proposed donations to political action committees (PACs) from both political parties that are focused on state races, but called for giving $2 to Democratic PACs for every $1 given to a Republican PAC.

A similar Democratic skew also appeared in proposed campaign contributions at the federal level.

The Cherokee Nation document called for making donations to just 11 Republican federal officeholders compared to 26 federal Democratic officeholders.

The Democratic federal officeholders on the Cherokee’s list included then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. The list also included current House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York, and U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, who is co-chairwoman of the Congressional Equality Caucus’s Transgender Equality Task Force.

As of publication, the Cherokee Nation had not provided comment.

A prior Cherokee Nation document, obtained by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, indicated that as much as $850,245 in tribal vehicle tax collections were spent in one year on “get out the vote” efforts that included “political donations for the Cherokee Nation, which gives our tribal government the opportunity to financially support and build relationships with political candidates who are or will be good representatives of Cherokee citizens and our interests.”

Approval of state-tribal compacts that funnel much vehicle tax revenue to tribal governments, along with tobacco tax collections, are now a source of contention at the Oklahoma Capitol.

House Bill 1005X would automatically renew any state-tribal compact regarding motor vehicle licensing or registration and license tags for another year.

SB 26X would authorize one-year state-tribal tobacco compacts that duplicate language in expiring compacts.

Both bills direct millions of dollars in state tax collections to tribal governments.

Gov. Kevin Stitt vetoed both bills, saying the compacts need to be updated to address recent court rulings.

In the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma, the court declared the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s Oklahoma reservation was never formally disestablished for purposes of federal major-crimes law. That ruling has since been expanded to include other tribes whose historic reservations cover an estimated 42 percent of eastern Oklahoma.

As a result, the number of locations where sales are subject to tobacco compacts could expand dramatically, funneling millions more to tribal governments and away from state government. Tribal governments have already filed briefs in court arguing that individuals of American Indian descent living in areas affected by McGirt, which comprise about 42 percent of the state, are now exempt from paying state income taxes. Similar arguments are expected regarding tobacco and vehicle taxes.

Democrats have been among the loudest voices calling for legislators to override Stitt’s veto of the two bills.

On June 12, after Republicans joined with Democratic lawmakers to override Stitt’s veto of HB1005X, House Democratic Leader Cyndi Munson of Oklahoma City issued a release titled, “House Democrats Override Governor Stitt’s Veto of Tribal Compacts.”

In that release, Munson declared that “the compacts have worked very well over the years.”

After the Senate failed to overturn Stitt’s veto of SB26X during a June 26 session, Munson issued a release saying it was “deeply concerning to hear the Governor’s veto of SB26X was sustained.”

Although Stitt’s vetoes of both bills currently stand, lawmakers can reconvene in special session at any point this month to attempt additional override efforts.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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