House District 2B is a mix of forests and farm country. It includes the towns of Park Rapids, Blackduck and Bagley, and encompasses the Red Lake Indian Reservation to the north. Historically, the district has been solid DFL territory. But since 2000 it's flip-flopped between DFL and Republican control. Republican Doug Lindgren won the seat in 2002. He was narrowly defeated two years later by DFLer Brita Sailer.
Now it's a rematch. Observers believe the seat is in play and could help determine which party controls the House.
It's also drawing attention for a politically charged issue that's become a cornerstone of Lindgren's campaign. Lindgren says the state of Minnesota should not be funding education and social programs on the Red Lake reservation. During a recent debate on Lakeland Public Television, Lindgren said that should be a federal responsibility.
"We are spending taxpayer money, Minnesota taxpayer money, to fund schools that should be getting their money from the federal government," said Lindgren. "We have to contact the people that are in charge of this and get that funding straightened out. I mean that's as clear as it can be."
The federal government typically isn't in the business of educating kids. That role falls to the states. In fact, Minnesota's constitution requires equal education for all Minnesota children, including students living on Indian reservations. Incumbent Rep. Brita Sailer says Lindgren's stance on Red Lake is meant to distract people from more important issues. She says changing the status quo would be up to the U.S. Congress.
"Much of this is actually a federal issue," said Sailer. "And to spend time at the state level and local level, stirring up questions that have actually been settled already and come to the Supreme Court, I'm not sure how helpful that is to any of us to be causing more animosity and just to be dividing people."
The Red Lake Nation is one of only two Indian tribes in the country that retain a unique government-to-government relationship with the U.S. The tribe has full sovereignty, subject only to federal legislation dealing specifically with Red Lake.
It's considered a closed reservation. That means the tribe has the right to limit who can visit or live there. Red Lake has never been subject to state law, even though tribal members are considered citizens of Minnesota and have the right to vote in local, state and national elections.
Red Lake emerged as a campaign issue last spring, when a non-Indian angler strayed into tribally controlled Red Lake waters. Tribal authorities confiscated the man's boat and cited him for trespassing.
It isn't the first time Red Lake confiscated equipment from non-Indians found fishing on tribal waters. But the latest incident angered some people. Doug Lindgren and others began pointing to an 80-year-old Supreme Court decision they claim gives the state of Minnesota jurisdictional rights to all waters in the state, including those on the reservation. Some law experts dispute that claim.
A new Bagley-based organization called Citizens for Truth in Government recently took out a full page ad in the Bemidji Pioneer newspaper. The ad highlights the water rights claim. It also claims the U.S. government should rightfully have full financial responsibility for the tribe. It alleges that state DFL lawmakers over the years have funded Red Lake education and passed laws favorable to the tribe to maintain political support. Typically, about 90 percent of Red Lake voters support Democrats at the polls.
Terry Maddy, treasurer of Citizens for Truth in Government, says the ad supports Doug Lindgren's positions on Red Lake. Maddy says the current relationship between Minnesota and Red Lake is unfair. For example, he says, tribal members can vote for the local sheriff, but that sheriff has no authority on the reservation.
"They've long had a tradition up there of having their cake and eating it, too," said Maddy.
Much of this is actually a federal issue... I'm not sure how helpful that is to any of us to be causing more animosity and just to be dividing people.Rep. Brita Sailer
Maddy says the federal government has failed to live up to its promises to the tribe, and the state is paying the price.
"We have the Natives', Indians', whatever, best interests at heart here," said Maddy. "There's a lot of issues. If you look at the reservation way of life and the way it's being perpetrated, it's not doing them any good. We'd like to see them come out of the Dark Ages and join society."
The newspaper ad prompted a response from the Bemidji Pioneer. Opinion page editor Brad Swenson wrote an editorial saying Red Lake is being used as a wedge issue. Swenson says it fuels prejudice and division, and shows an ignorance of tribal sovereignty.
Swenson says Lindgren's use of Red Lake as a campaign issue is a risky strategy. While it might appeal to some, it could alienate others.
"He's almost doing it to the exclusivity of any other issue," Swenson said. "He's tying all of his issues into the same issue that we're spending money at Red Lake. And that's something I guess the voters will have to look at."
Swenson says there's merit in seeking more federal responsibility in funding things like health care and human services, which the U.S. government is directly responsible for in Indian Country. But he says claims that Red Lake tribal members shouldn't have the right to vote or manage their resources won't go far.
"I think they've got a lot of case law and decisions beyond those that are being cited by Doug Lindgren and his supporters that tends to show that the Red Lake Nation does, indeed, have rights to its lands and to its waters," said Swenson. "And I think that any test to that case is going to cost somebody hundreds of thousands of dollars to get that decided if they're going to want to go the court route."
Red Lake officials say they view the newspaper ad as a racist attack. Tribal Chairman Buck Jourdain says attacks on Indian tribal sovereignty seem to happen every election cycle. He says lately they've been getting worse. Jourdain says Red Lake will rigorously defend itself.
"We're always ready," said Jourdain. "That's just the nature of Indian tribes. They're always ready. They're always in a position knowing that someday a fight is going to come."
There's no public polling information to indicate how the District 2B race is shaping up between Lindgren and Sailer. But both political parties are closely watching the race. DFL lawmakers are quietly speculating they have a good chance at gaining control of the House. It's now in Republican hands by just a two-seat margin.
Both parties, along with special interest groups, are pouring resources into the District 2B race in an effort to get their message to voters.