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Clinton refuses to attend 'Prez on the Rez' forum

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-New York) became the first major Democratic presidential candidate to turn down the "Prez on the Rez" forum, drawing an angry response from the event's organizers on Wednesday.

Kalyn Free, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, accused Clinton of lacking the "courage to change lives in Indian Country." "I'm both disappointed and astonished that Senator Clinton has turned her back on American Indians," said Free, whose non-profit INDN's List Education Fund (ILEF) is organizing the event.

"By refusing to participate in this historic event, she lost an opportunity to inspire an entire generation of American Indians to engage in the democratic process," added Free, who ran for U.S. Congress in 2002.

Clinton didn't give ILEF a reason for declining the invitation, Dave Parker, the political director for the group, said in an interview. Her campaign didn't return Indianz.Com's request for comment.

But a spokesperson for the campaign gave The Palm Springs Desert Sun a couple of explanations for the decision. "She will not be in California that day," Phil Singer told the paper.

"That's ridiculous," responded Parker, noting that all the candidates were extended an invitation more than six months ago. "It's offensive is what it is."

A second reason was the "labor issue," The Desert Sun reported. The Morongo Band of Mission Indians, the host of the event, recently signed a gaming compact with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) that labor unions -- the traditional allies of the Democratic party -- oppose.

Parker said ILEF has been reaching out to labor unions to address their concerns. "We see it as an opportunity for a discussion between tribes and labor, assuming both sides want that to happen," he said.

But for Clinton to reject the invitation based on the labor issue speaks to her "shortsightedness," Parker argued. "There are 562 federally recognized tribes," he said. They are coming from all over America for this event."

"It's very shortsighted on her part to say no to this opportunity to reach out to American Indians," Parker said.

After Free announced plans for "Prez on the Rez" back in February, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D-New Mexico), who has a strong record on Indian issues as a former Congressman and former Cabinet official, immediately confirmed. Former Sen. Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) also said he will attend.

None of the other candidates, however, have committed to the August 23 event, despite strong backing from the Democratic National Committee and its chairman Howard Dean, a former governor of Vermont who ran for president in 2004.

"If they say no, it's clear what kind of president they're going to be," said Parker.

Free, a former Department of Justice attorney and former district attorney in Oklahoma, founded the Indigenous Democratic Network to train and elect Indian candidates. In 2006, the group helped put 16 Native Americans across the county in office.

Relevant Links:
Prez on the Rez -
Indigenous Democratic Network -