Montana Free Press: Republican complains of ‘handouts’ to Native voters

Indianz.Com > News > Montana Free Press: Republican Complains About ‘Handouts’ To Native Voters

Montana State Capitol

Flags of tribal nations can be seen at the Montana State Capitol in Helena. Photo: Eliza Wiley/Montana Free Press

HD 80 hopeful asking if reserve votes should count

Drew Zinecker, an aide to Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, made the comments during a meeting of the Lewis and Clark County Republican Central Committee.

Monday, January 2, 2023

By Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Montana FreePress

A legislative adviser seeking to represent House District 80 in the 2023 legislature made public statements last month questioning whether members of tribes living on reservations in Montana should be allowed to vote in state elections. “If the reservations want to say they’re independent countries … but they want a lot of handouts, why are we counting their ballots?” said Drew Zinecker, who was speaking at this session as a staff member for Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, during a Lewis and Clark County Republican Central Committee session. Mitchell did not respond to a request for comment. The committee was assembled to bring potential appointments to HD 80, a district comprising portions of Lewis and Clark and Powell counties recently vacated by Rep. Becky Beard, R-Elliston, who was herself appointed this month, to represent Senate District 40, a seat vacated by the resignation of Senator Terry Gauthier, R-Helena. Zinecker, one of several candidates standing for questioning by committee members on Tuesday, December 20, 2022, made the comment to mixed applause during a call on the integrity of the elections. The committee eventually voted to move all six candidates — Zinecker, Hailey Oestreicher, Zack Wirth, Valerie Clague, Ken Liston and Nathan Nachtsheim — forward in the process. A committee composed of representatives from the Lewis and Clark and Powell County GOP Central Committees will meet next week to propose three of the candidates for consideration by the Lewis and Clark and Powell County commissioners. In an interview with Montana Free Press after the committee meeting, Zinecker said his view of tribal sovereignty and voting access was common among conservatives. “There is a very unanimous opinion among conservatives that if the tribes want to continue to assert their sovereignty, it seriously challenges whether or not they can vote,” Zinecker said. Zinecker served as an aide to Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, in the 2021 session. He was also communications director of the Senate GOP in session 2019 and led Public Service Commissioner Randy Pinocci’s 2020 campaign, among other policy assignments. During his tenure as Communications Director for the PSC from 2019-2020, Zinecker was a main character in a saga about the Commission’s internal dysfunction. An internal investigation identified Zinecker as the likely leak of emails from then-Commissioner Roger Koopman, which found their way to Pinocci and right-wing blog Northwest Liberty News. Koopman brought the PSC, Zinecker, the Commission’s Legal Department, Office Administrator Mandy Hinman and Commissioners Pinocci, Bob Lake and Brad Johnson to court in late 2020. The case is still open. In response to a question from a Central Committee member, Zinecker called the lawsuit “frivolous and harassing” and said the defendants had all made motions to have the case dismissed. Zinecker said his Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022 comments on the reservation vote pertain to state elections, not federal elections, because “we can only negotiate with the state.” Sen. Jason Small, a Busby Republican and member of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, said Zinecker’s skepticism about tribal voting in state elections is limited to “a very select group” in the Legislature. “Damn, I can’t believe he said that,” Small said. “It’s funny, but it’s not funny.” Zinecker said a key justification for his position is that conservatives in the state government want to — but cannot — audit tribal nation finances like the Legislative Audit Committee can at state agencies. “That is a big problem. They increasingly claim that they are sovereign nations. And if they’re going to continue to operate on a completely different standard or playing field than the Montanans, then they really have to be these independent nations, and that starts with voting,” Zinecker said. There are 12 officially recognized Native American tribes in the state. In general, most tribal funding comes from the federal government, which audits tribal finances. However, state dollars also go to Montana’s tribes and accounted for 8% of tribal revenue between 2003 and 2009, according to the Montana Budget and Policy Center. Small said tribes in Montana, despite their status as sovereign governmental entities governed by federal and tribal law, have a “symbiotic relationship” with the state, including numerous revenue-sharing arrangements and secondary benefits from tourism and other economic drivers, he said . In addition, owners of royalty properties on reservations—that is, properties not held in trust by the federal government—must pay state and local property taxes. “You can’t choose who votes,” Small said. “Where do you draw that line — ‘Hey, you didn’t pay any taxes this year, you can’t vote?'” Zinecker said he knows several people who were running for Secretary of State for Montana, the office that won the election in Montana monitored and made “not counting [tribal] votes” a large part of their platform. He did not name such candidates. “And I’m in favor of counting their votes,” he said. “I just want them to go ahead and be Montanan. Let Montaner be Montaner. No discrimination.” It is similarly logical that a bill Zinecker is preparing at Mitchell’s behest would ban questions about race or origin on state forms other than driver’s licenses, he said. Rep. Joe Read, R-Ronan, is one of several state legislators and political figures — including former Crow Tribe leader AJ Not Afraid — who have supported Zinecker’s bid for the HD 80 seat. Read, whose district includes portions of the Flathead Indian Reservation, said the citizens of Montana, including of those on tribal reservations, would have voting rights in Montana’s elections, but he suggested that Zinecker was merely making a hypothesis based on a conversation the two had during the 2021 session about the Read-sponsored legislation not to -Allow tribesmen to hunt on private reserve Read said the tribes aren’t t truly sovereign, describing them as “a federally dependent ethnic group.” “We still represent them as citizens of the state of Montana,” he said. “That was a discussion we had in the back room – and that was if they really were a sovereign country that would negate their right to vote. It was literally just an ‘if’.”

Arren Kimbel-Sannit grew up in Arizona and is no stranger to the issues affecting western states, having a keen interest in land, transportation and housing politics. Before moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered farm and trade policies for Politico in Washington, DC that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed.

Note: This story originally appeared on Montana Free Press. It is released under a Creative Commons license.

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