On the eve of his departure from the U.S. Senate, Colorado’s colorful and often controversial Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell was interviewed in Tuesday’s Fort Collins Coloradan. His pet peeve: Partisanship, whether tribal or religious:
“It looks to me like America little by little is becoming balkanized, and that’s really dangerous,” Campbell said as he took a break from packing up his office after 18 years in Washington. “People put either their religious views or tribal views ahead of the national fabric.”
He blames the increasingly bitter partisanship on what he calls “100 percenters” — groups such as environmentalists, evangelical Christians and gun rights advocates who have strong, black-or-white positions. “What that means is if you’re not with them 100 percent of the time, they trash you,” Campbell said. “There’s no middle ground.”
The Senator may be crying “Kick ’em when they’re up, kick ’em when they’re down,” but his independent streak may be as much the cause of criticism against him as his self-professed moderateness. Voters elected a Democrat and got a Republican when he changed parties in 1995. He also may not have run a particularly tight ship. He leaves office with an open Justice Department investigation into ex-staffer allegations of a kickback to his former chief of staff.
Between the House of Representatives and the Senate, Ben Nighthorse Campbell served Colorado for 18 years. From a legislative perspective, one must give him credit for his successes on Indian issues.
In 1997, he became the first Indian ever to chair the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over all federal Indian programs. Campbell used this platform to strengthen tribes’ authority over their lands and people, to help tribes diversify their economies, bring more non-Indian businesses onto their reservations and improve education for Indian children. “Every native person thought he was our private senator,” said Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne and president of the Morning Star Institute, a group that lobbies to protect property rights and religious freedom for Indians.
On the other hand, environmentalists say, overall, he let them down:
Senator Campbell was not the champion of the environment that a lot of his constituents hoped he would be,” said Pete Kolbenschlag, Western Slope field director for the Colorado Environmental Coalition.
Evangelicals harbor bitterness as well, primarily because he voted against the consitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Hold the applause, though. Campbell is “personally opposed” to gay marriage and voted for an earlier federal bill defining marriage as between a man and a woman. His opposition to the Amendment was based on his belief it “would write discrimination into the Constitution.”
My primary bone to pick with the Senator during his tenure was his refusal to support the elimination of mandatory minimum drug sentences or reduce the disparity in the crack – powder cocaine sentencing laws, both of which so adversely affect minorities.
One thing you could always count on from the Senator–he speaks his mind. One of my favorite recent quotes of Senator Campbell’s was his reaction to the release of graphic photos depicting U.S. soldiers abusing Abu Graib prisoners in Iraq:
“I don’t know how the hell these people got into our Army,” said Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., after viewing what he called a fraction of the images.
So what’s next for Sen. Campbell? He’s not ruling out a 2006 run at the Governor’s mansion, a possibility 5280 reported on several months ago here. In the meantime,
He will return to designing and making jewelry and is working on a deal to license his name to an outdoor equipment manufacturer. He’s considering offers to work for a law firm as a consultant to Indian tribes.