Oklahoma tribal leaders give Joy Hofmeister historic endorsement
Leaders of Oklahoma's five largest tribal nations endorsed Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister in her bid for Governor at a press event in Oklahoma City Tuesday. Hofmeister, who was previously a Republican, switched parties last year to run against incumbent Gov. Kevin Stitt.
This is the first time tribal leaders in the state have jointly gone on record to endorse a candidate running for public office. And it comes at a time where Hofmeister appears to be pulling closer in the polls as election day looms on Nov. 8.
Seminole Nation Chief Lewis Johnson said Hofmeister has shown respect for tribal sovereignty, a willingness to come to the table to work with tribes on public safety and a commitment to education.
"We have children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews and cousins that attend the public school system and the charter school systems," Johnson said. "We want to continue to see improvements in those particular areas because the education of children is really, truly the foundation for the future of the state of Oklahoma."
Hofmeister has been seen at several Indigenous events over the summer-including the Tulsa Powwow and Cherokee National Holiday. She said she values the contributions the tribes have made to Oklahoma.
"The sovereign rights and self-determination of tribes in Oklahoma has led to tremendous contributions and investments that improve our state and local communities on a daily basis," Hofmeister said.
A cooperative relationship
Earlier this year, a report detailing the state of tribal economies was prepared by the Oklahoma Tribal Finance Consortium. It showed an increase of more than $2.6 billion in economic activity from 2017 to 2019, the last time tribal economic data was collected.
Tribal leaders said they want a Governor that respects those contributions. Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said they haven’t always got that in the past from Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt.
Stitt has had a frosty relationship with the tribes since trying to rework decades-old gaming compacts with the state in 2020. The Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Tribes, which consists of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, Chickasaw and Muscogee nations, even rescinded a previous congratulatory resolution for his election because the members were "repeatedly disappointed" by the governor.
“People need to understand we're dealing with a governor who views 39 tribes as 39 enemies, 39 tribes as 39 obstacles will be knocked out of the way,” Hoskin Jr. said. “If that is the mindset-that is wholly inadequate, not just for tribes, it's wholly inadequate for the people of the state of Oklahoma. And so all we're looking for is the opposite of that.”
He said that the leaders of the five tribes believe they’ve found that in Hofmeister.
Muscogee Nation Principal Chief David Hill said he asked Hofmeister what her 60 and 90 day plans are if she becomes governor.
"One of the priorities that she mentioned was to sit down with tribal nations," Hill said.
He said the state needs someone who is going to come to the table to discuss public safety issues and work with tribal nations. Leaders of the five tribes have long complained that Stitt wasn't willing to talk with them about public safety issues after the landmark McGirt v. Oklahoma decision that restored tribal jurisdiction for the purposes of the major crimes act. Instead, they said he has wasted public resources on lawsuits attacking tribal sovereignty.
The tribes have also grown concerned about educational issues. Recently, The Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Tribes got together and jointly called on Oklahoma lawmakers to repeal House Bill 1775, the state’s so-called critical race theory ban.
Hofmeister, who has advocated for fully teaching history in the classroom around controversial topics like the Tulsa Race Massacre and the Osage Reign of Terror in the past, is the best candidate around public education issues, they said.
State campaign finance reports show several tribal leaders have given to Hofmeister's campaign.
Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby and Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton have donated to her campaign, according to the state's campaign finance pre-runoff report. Hoskin Jr. said Cherokee Nation has also contributed to her campaign.
"I don't think there's any shame at all in saying that the Cherokee Nation is putting resources into supporting the best candidate for governor," Hoskin Jr. said.
Earlier this year, the Cherokee Nation passed legislation banning dark money in their tribal elections. Under existing Cherokee election law, every dollar must be accounted for and candidates must disclose where their campaign money comes from. The new law strengthens the penalties for those who don't disclose or follow those rules.
In 2019, a group called Cherokees for Change, raised an undisclosed amount of money in support of David Walkingstick, who was running for Principal Chief. Walkingstick was eventually disqualified, but Hoskin Jr. said the donation highlighted the need for stronger laws.
KOSU reached out to Stitt's campaign manager Donelle Harder for a statement regarding tribal leaders and their endorsements.
“Governor Kevin Stitt is proud to have the endorsement of the Oklahoma State Fraternal Order of Police as well as the support of thousands of tribal members across the state, because Gov. Stitt has delivered on his promises to turn deficits into surpluses, to deliver safe communities, to fund teachers and education at historic highs, all while cutting taxes for every Oklahoman,” said Harder.
Harder previously told online news outlet The Frontier that “(Hofmeister) has always been bought and paid for by special interests.”
When asked about that quote, Harder wrote to KOSU in an email exchange: "Who is funding the $20 million in dark money ads supporting Joy Hofmeister and attacking Governor Kevin Stitt? Is this what you are investigating?"
KOSU asked Stitt's campaign if they consider tribal nations special interest groups.
"Are governments or Sovereign Nations funding dark money? Or is it the casino industry?" asked Harder in her response.
Money aside, it's unclear if this endorsement will turn into votes in the tightening race. Johnson and Hill both said they hope it will.
"You know, as Americans, as Oklahomans, as tribal citizens, we have that free choice to vote for whoever that we want," Johnson said. "You know, as the Chief of the nation endorsing Ms Hofmeister, I believe it will also kind of flow over into our tribal membership as well as looking at that as the candidate of choice,"
Tribal nations in Oklahoma have done get-out-the-vote events throughout the state at places like the Tulsa State Fair, and plan to canvas and hand out voter education guides for their citizens.