Idaho polls show EchoHawk leads in bid to become 1st American Indian governor

September 05, 1994|By New York Times News Service

TWIN FALLS, Idaho -- To be a Democrat in this state, where Bill Clinton barely nudged Ross Perot for second place in the 1992 election with just 29 percent of the vote, is to be intimate with the word underdog.

And to be anything other than a white candidate in Idaho, where racial minorities make up only about 7 percent of the population, would seem a challenge to a politician of any party.

So it comes as a surprise to many people that Larry EchoHawk, a Pawnee Indian and Democrat who counts President Clinton as a friend, is holding a steady double-digit lead in the polls in the race to become Idaho's next governor.

Mr. EchoHawk does not shy away from acknowledging his ethnic background or his party affiliation. But as he travels between the two time zones that divide this mountainous state, he stresses other parts of his background. He is now the state attorney general. He was a county prosecutor in Idaho, a Brigham Young University football player and a Marine.

He is also a Mormon. And while that may help him here in Idaho, which is second only to Utah in the percentage of people who belong to the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints, it has caused trouble among some Indians.

Even as the tribes welcome the likely prospect that Mr. EchoHawk will become the nation's first American Indian governor, some of them say his opposition to expanding gambling in the state could deprive them of significant economic opportunity.

The Mormon faith has tenets against gambling, and Idaho has a constitutional amendment against casino-style gambling, a law written in part, and defended in court, by Mr. EchoHawk.

"We have our differences with Larry EchoHawk," said Charles Hayes, chairman of the Nez Perce Indian tribal council. "There is a sense of honor and pride that he might be elected. But there is also real frustration."

Choosing his words with care, Mr. EchoHawk, a 46-year-old marathon-runner who is extremely soft-spoken, says gambling is not the best way to help Indians, even though it has brought full employment to some tribes in other states.

Idaho's three big Indian reservations have not shared in the enormous prosperity that has come to this state in the past five years, driven in large part by a surge of people from California and growth in high-tech jobs and food processing.

"I told the tribes when I ran for attorney general that I could not be the tribal attorney in the statehouse," he said. "I care very deeply about their issues. I was raised with Indian values. And the strongest of those is family. That's what we have to look at, making the family strong."

Mr. EchoHawk won his party's primary with a nearly 3-to-1 vote. His Republican rival in the race, Phil Batt, a former legislator and party chairman, asked people in a recent poll how they felt about the possibility of Idaho electing the nation's first Indian governor. He will not say what the results were.

But Mr. Batt has said that he will not use Mr. EchoHawk's ethnicity as an issue.

Outside Idaho, Mr. EchoHawk's candidacy has energized Indians throughout the West and become a cause for some Hollywood luminaries. Dustin Hoffman donated $50,000 to his campaign.

One of six children, Mr. EchoHawk was born on Aug. 2, 1948, in Wyoming and grew up in Farmington, N.M. His father, a full-blooded Pawnee, was a land surveyor and worked in the oil supply business. His mother is of German ancestry.

His hero, he said, is Robert F. Kennedy.

"In the early years of my life, I never thought I would even go to college," he said.

"But in my formative years, I heard Robert Kennedy say: 'Some men see things as they are and say why. I see things as they could be and say why not.' "

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