Published January 14, 2018
Gavin Clarkson is clear: He supports President Donald J. Trump. And he’s running for Congress because “the swamp is deep, the alligators, bite, and the taxpayers are getting ripped off every day.” He wants less regulation and more oil and gas development. And don’t get him started on what he dismisses as “fake news.” More on that, shortly.
Clarkson, a Choctaw tribal member, is running in the Republican primary for New Mexico’s second congressional district. The district is now represented by the state’s only Republican in Congress, Steve Pearce, who is a candidate for governor. It’s a crowded field. There are at least four Republican candidates and a half dozen Democrats. (Two of the Republicans have already raised nearly a half million dollars between them.) The filing deadline comes up in March and the primary is in June. The district is 5.5 percent Native American, and includes the homelands of the Mescalero Apache Tribe, and the Zuni, Laguna, Isleta Pueblos. A small portion of the Navajo Nation and Ft. Sill Apache are also included.
This is a fascinating district. It’s huge, the largest congressional district in the United States that’s not a single state district, such as Alaska or Montana. It’s also considered a “lean Republican” district by about five points. And Trump did carry the district, but he only barely reached 50 percent of the vote. Obama won over the same voters in his last race.
It’s also a district that is changing demographically. Pew Research says only 40 percent of Hispanics in the district are now eligible to vote, but potentially that number could soon top 56 percent. That would be a game changer and the current divide over childhood arrivals and immigration reform could exacerbate that shift.
Clarkson has served in the Trump administration as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. He is a business professor at New Mexico State University. And says he’s the first Native American to earn a PhD from the Harvard Business School.
His short stint at Interior was focused on modernizing the Indian trader regulations.
However Clarkson’s role become controversial after an Inspector General released a report that said stronger “internal controls” were needed over the management of Indian loan program guarantees. ProPublica and The Washington Post reported that Clarkson resigned after the report — something he calls “fake news.” That’s harsh. After reading the stories, it’s clear that someone at Interior had said he had resigned. There is a source there. Two different news organizations would not independently make that fact up. And Interior would not comment on the record, only saying it was a personnel matter.
The issue involves a $22.5 million loan guarantee for an enterprise of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe that the Inspector General said did not meet guidelines and the deal “went south.” Clarkson blamed Lois Lerner, then an IRS official, for changing the rules. But reports from the Inspector General and from Human Rights Watch cite a the lack of internal control and a fiscal shell game. The Inspector General report said: “Appropriate controls are important due to the level of risk of this Program. Between 2010 and 2016, DCI paid approximately $12.4 million in claims resulting from defaults, and received an additional claim for approximately $20 million, which had not been paid at the time of our review. As of September 30, 2016, DCI was potentially liable for $606 million in guaranteed loans. Should any of the borrowers default on these loans, it is ultimately taxpayers who would carry the burden of bailing out the lenders since their obligations are guaranteed by the U.S. Government.”
Clarkson said he did not personally profit from this venture nor did not resign from the Interior Department until the end of this year. And then, he said, it was to run for Congress. “The story spiraled out of control,” Clarkson said. He said the department said he could not comment, or correct the record, only told to “suck it up.” Now that he is out of government, however, he said he can tell his side of the story.
The IG report said: “Finally, the company’s business plan relied on an expectation of a favorable tax ruling from the Internal Revenue Service, which it did not receive.” However a 2008 letter from the IRS does say the business plan could raise capital based on an exemption from federal taxes. That, Clarkson said, was later reversed by Lerner.
And in his news release announcing his candidacy Clarkson went on the attack. After exposing “Lois Lerner’s racist practice of conducting IRS audits of tax-exempt bonds thirty-two times more often against tribes than state and local governments,” Clarkson said he was able to convince one of Lerner’s subordinates to admit the IRS’s wrongdoing and change its policy. “Lois Lerner retaliated by pulling the rug out from under my initiative to leverage capital gains tax treatment to attract outside capital investment into tribal economies. She changed the rules in the middle of the game, ignoring the plain reading of a statute, just like far too many activist judges do.”
Clarkson said he is running as a conservative and a lifelong Republican. He said his advocacy of tribal sovereignty is not a partisan issue and he will have support from tribes, individual Indians, and the oil and gas industry.
I asked Clarkson about climate change. He said he’s not convinced it’s necessary to destroy the economy to take action. “I fully support the president for pulling out of climate deal,” he said. We have to “do what’s best for America.” Translation in the Trump era: Do what’s best for gas and oil.
To me, doing what’s best for America means to take climate change seriously and to act accordingly. Clarkson told me as a “scientist” he’s skeptical. However his resume reports that he was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to study the dynamics of tribal finance. His expertise is not in climate science, but economics.
This is important because it’s misleading to say that the science is not there when it comes to climate change. It’s a political talking point and nothing more. One of the standards of academic research is the peer review process. According to a recent roundup of scientific studies by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, “peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.” My point here is that to say, “the evidence is not there,” is an attack on the scientific process (which is exactly why the Trump administration is so keen to make research less rigorous).
The other issue I asked Clarkson about was Medicaid. Nearly every Republican plan in Congress pushes the idea of turning Medicaid into a block grant program for states. Clarkson said in an email: “I firmly believe that Medicaid is a critical program and must be improved by making it less bureaucratic. I believe that Medicaid has become too costly and complex for states to effectively manage, and it is already the biggest item in state budgets and is projected to absorb as much as 80-100 percent of all state revenues if left unreformed.”
He said he supports the Navajo Nation’s efforts to assume Medicaid responsibility for on-reservation members.
“The nation’s most disadvantaged, including many needy children, deserve an efficient health care program that will continue to provide essential services,” Clarkson said. “If Medicaid is left as it is currently, there will be no safety net for the poor in the future.”
I, too, would not leave Medicaid as it is. I would expand it. It’s more cost effective (yes, cheaper) than private sector health care. But more important Medicaid has become essential to the Indian health system.
There are four Native American Republicans running for Congress. Representatives Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin from Oklahoma. Dino Rossi in Washington state. And now Clarkson.
Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports