GOP dark horse appears BIA favorite
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FEBRUARY 7, 2001

In what could turn out to be a major upset for Indian Country, a high-profile member of the Republican Party with no direct experience in Indian issues might soon take over the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

With Gale Norton confirmed as Secretary of Interior, the identity of Kevin Gover's replacement has been a hot topic in recent weeks. A number of individuals with significant experience in tribal policy -- including Ed Thomas, president of the Tlingit and Haida Central Council in Alaska, Gaiashkibos, chairman of the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Tribe of Wisconsin, and Jana McKeag, a former National Indian Gaming Commission attorney -- have emerged as prime candidates for the position.

Yet a dark horse whom former Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson says "knows more about what works in politics" than anyone else appears poised to head the BIA. And although he comes to the table with a long list of accomplishments, accolades, and achievements, its what tribal leaders say Tom Cole doesn't have that spells trouble for Indian Country.

"This guy would spend the first two years of his administration learning about Indian Country, and the Bush administration and the Department of Interior cannot afford to have that kind of a learning curve for this individual," said Ron Allen, Chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington.

"This kind of leadership would be a disaster in the making," Allen said of Cole.

While Allen had a strong opinion, other tribal leaders, including Keller George, president of the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET), have so far professed complete ignorance of the man. But a look at Cole's leadership within the Republican Party, coupled with his role in private industry, puts him squarely in line with other Bush appointees whom critics say have little or inappropriate experience for their designated positions.

Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, has firm roots in state politics, having served as chairman of the Oklahoma Republican party. His mother, Helen Cole, is a former state Senator and Cole was elected to her seat after she retired in 1988.

A close adviser to Frank Keating, passed over as Bush's running mate and Attorney General, Cole helped the Republican win the Governor's race in 1994 and was rewarded with a Secretary of State position. But he left the administration after Keating won re-election in 1998 to become chief of staff at the Republican National Committee.

Cole was no stranger to the national GOP scene, though, having served on the Committee in the 1980s along with Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham. From 1991 to 1993, Cole was also the executive director for the National Republican Congressional Committee while Abraham served as co-chairman.

With the Presidential race and the balance of power in both houses of Congress at stake, Cole oversaw operations at the RNC at its most critical state. Last year, the party raised and spent a record amount of funds on GOP candidates, with $13 million going directly to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Some of that money came from Cole himself. A founding partner of Cole, Hargrove, and Snodgrass Associates, the nationally-recognized political consulting firm based in Oklahoma City last year contributed nearly $22,000 to the party.

The amount may not seem large but in Oklahoma, it put the firm near the top of the list of soft money donors in the last election cycle. The firm also supported Andy Ewing's run for Oklahoma's 2nd District House Seat but the deeply religious, conservative car salesman lost to Brad Carson, a member of the Cherokee Nation.

Like a number of other members of Bush's Cabinet and staff, Cole's service to the Republican Party hasn't gone unnoticed by the President. Last month, Bush put Cole back to work with Abraham, naming Cole a member of the Energy Department's transition team.

And though he resigned from his RNC post with the stated intention of returning to his private practice, Cole hasn't been back home in Oklahoma all that much. He's in Washington, DC, this week and was unavailable for comment.

Relevant Links:
The Republican National Committee -
The Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma -