By Mike Hixenbaugh
PEMBROKE – A controversial contract between the Lumbees and a Las Vegas gaming consultant may be souring lawmakers against federal recognition, according to Indian policy experts in Washington.
Although North Carolina’s two senators say the legislation remains on track, policy experts who have followed the bill believe the tribe’s internal wrangling and apparent change of position on gambling makes the bill a tough sell in an election year.
Earlier this year, the Lumbee Tribe ratified a deal with Lewin International that gives the consultant the exclusive right to lobby for federal recognition and guarantees the firm a stake in future Lumbee economic ventures, including casinos.
The contract has stirred passionate protest among tribal members, many of whom fear a binding relationship with the consultant threatens the tribe’s century-old push for recognition.
Congress is closer than ever to granting the 50,000-member Lumbee tribe full federal recognition, which would bring millions of dollars for education, health care and child welfare. And for the first time in recent memory, the tribe has presidential support.
But the recognition bill awaiting a final vote on the Senate floor specifically denies the tribe authority to open casinos – a concession by tribal leaders three years ago to help get the bill through the House.
“We gave our word of honor that this was our intention; that this wasn’t about gaming,” said Arlinda Locklear, the Maryland-based Lumbee lawyer who led the recognition lobbying effort for 20 years until the Lewin deal replaced her. “Now they’ve thrown that word of honor out the window.”
If the recognition bill doesn’t pass by the end of this year, it dies and the process starts over. Locklear said lawmakers are unlikely to consider the bill at this point.
“Our credibility has been damaged,” she said. “This contract sets the effort back years.”
Three experts in federal Indian policy told The Fayetteville Observer they believe the recognition bill is in jeopardy. They spoke on the condition they not be identified.
The sources identified six Republican senators who would almost certainly place a procedural hold on the Lumbee bill if it was brought for a vote. Two of the senators are running for re-election in November.
Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, who is also up for re-election, will have to persuade those lawmakers to allow a vote on the bill, the policy experts said. But the Lewin contract – whether or not gaming is in the bill – makes that a tough political sell, they said.
Publicity about the Lewin contract is also hurting the bill, the sources said.
Burr’s office doesn’t see it that way, a representative said.
And, in a statement, Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina said she remains committed to seeing the Lumbee bill passed this year.
Hagan, a Democrat, and Burr, a Republican, each threw their support behind the bill last year, as did Rep. Mike McIntyre of Lumberton.
Burr’s office said the Lewin contract isn’t even on their radar.
“It has done nothing in any way to affect our support in the push for Lumbee recognition,” said Burr spokesman David Ward. “We’re going to push on and we’re hopeful the bill will pass and that the Lumbees will receive the recognition they, and this office, have been pushing for.”
Burr opposes amending the bill to add gaming, Ward said. And although the Lewin contract places a premium on removing the anti-gaming language, Lumbee Chairman Purnell Swett has said he’d like to see the legislation pass as written.
A Lumbee policy expert in Burr’s office said the senator hopes to attach the recognition bill to another piece of legislation and bring it to a vote before the end of the year. Burr representatives said they haven’t been contacted by Lewin or anyone else seeking to get gaming back in the bill.
More than two months after the contract was ratified, Lewin has yet to register a lobbyist in Washington. The firm’s president, Larry Lewin, did not return phone calls.
“It’s not our business who the tribe is working with,” Ward said. “The senator is focussed on passing our bill.”
Opponents of Lumbee recognition – mostly other Indian groups – have remained mum on the Lewin contract.
Wilson Pipestem, a lobbyist for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, said he is aware of the Lewin contract but declined to speak about his efforts in Washington.
Other Cherokee officials would not talk about the Lumbee agreement.
“The Eastern Band has not changed its position on Lumbee recognition,” Principal Chief Michell Hicks said in a statement.
News reports about the deal have appeared in several Indian publications across the country in recent months.
Lawrence Locklear, a Lumbee tribal member and outspoken opponent of the Lewin contract, helped form the Lumbee Sovereignty Coalition to protest the agreement. The group is working to recall Tribal Council members who continue supporting the contract.
“You better believe (other Indian groups) are talking about this,” Locklear said. “You know they’re using it to argue against our recognition.”