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November 01, 2016 Waymaker

An Interview with Congressman Thomas Jeffery Cole

By Judge Beth A. Gibson

Congressman, it’s an honor and a privilege to be able to talk to you today and highlight the good works of your career—not only for Oklahoma but for Native Americans across the courts as well.

If you don’t mind, I would like to start by talking about who you are and where you grew up.

Well, I was born into a military family. By the time I was 11 years old, I had been to Oklahoma many times. When we moved back to Oklahoma, my parents lived in the little town of Moore. Not a little town now—it’s 60,000 people. It was 1,500 when we moved there.

The family was always very deeply rooted in Oklahoma. We go back on my mom’s side to my great-great-grandfather, who at the age of 14 was one of the last groups of Chickasaws that was forcibly removed from Mississippi. On Dad’s side—he’s not a Native—but his grandfather, my great-grandfather, came into Indian territory out of Mississippi in 1880 as an 18-year-old young man. The roots of the family are very deep, and the Chickasaw roots in particular are very strong. My great-great-grandfather ended up as the clerk of the Chickasaw Supreme Court. And his son, my great-grandfather, was later the treasurer of the Chickasaw Nation at the time of the allotment process during the early stage of the era. Then his daughter, my grandmother’s sister Te Ata, the world-renowned Indian artist and performer—there’s been a book about her; there’s now a new movie coming out about her, a documentary play—she lived to almost a hundred, died in 1995. And then my mother was the first Native American woman ever elected to the state senate in Oklahoma and was very active always in tribal affairs.

So the family has a long history of not only being Chickasaw but being extremely active in Chickasaw government, politics, the arts. Sometimes there are mediators between the non-Indian society and tribal society, and my mom played that role. I’ve played that role to a degree as well.

I noticed that as a young person, your plan was to become a professional football player, a defensive end position.

Well, a dream. I don’t think it was ever much of a plan. I was a reasonably good football player. I was all-conference and all-district in high school, and I had some scholarship offers, but they were from small schools. I ended up playing Division III football at Grinnell College. What kid doesn’t dream of playing professional athletics? But by the time I was 17 or 18, I was smart enough to know this was not going to be the path for me.

So, then you went on to college. You went to Grinnell for your bachelor’s and then on to Yale for a master’s?

I had a break. At Grinnell I won what’s called a Watson Fellowship that IBM sponsored, named after Thomas Watson, and that sponsors a year’s worth of independent study abroad. So I went to London. I was interested in British history, and that absolutely hooked me. My wife and I lived out in the east end of London in a place called the Isle of Dogs in the heart of Cockney, London.

From there, we went to Yale for my master’s. The entry market was beginning to collapse in 1973–74, so I didn’t see much in the way of job opportunities. I looked down the road. I thought I’d go to the University of Oklahoma [OU] and start law school. That lasted all of a semester. I did reasonably well, but it wasn’t what I was interested in.

I joined the history department. It turned out OU had a very fine Victorian historian that I could study under. And by happenstance, the chairman of the department had been a classmate at Princeton of an advisor I’d had at Grinnell. When I talked to him, he actually called my old advisor with me sitting there. When he hung up, he said, “If you’d like to start here in January of ’75 in the history department, you get a teaching fellowship and a full scholarship.” So that sort of sealed the deal.

I got lucky and went back into academics and thought that’s what I was going to do and ended up getting a full ride, receiving my doctorate eventually and all that. But politics intervened along the way. My mom divorced, and life began to open in other directions.

It sounds like your mother was a strong influence in your life—not only because she was your mother, but also because she was the first Native American woman elected to state office in Oklahoma.

Well, not the state office but the state senate. There had probably been house members or something before but certainly not the state senate. She was an extraordinary influence. She was a terrific mom. I couldn’t have asked for a better mother.

She had grown up with a single mother. Her father divorced her mother quite early, which was pretty typical. It was one of these situations where her mother had allotment land, married a white guy. He sold the land, divorced her. She grew up in fairly challenging circumstances in the Depression era with a single mom as a little Indian girl—but with a first-class mind and incredible temperament, iron resolve about everything.

She was a service wife. My dad and she were traveling around. He was a career non-commissioned officer. These were not lavish circumstances, but she got interested in politics. In a sense we come from a political family in terms of her grandfather having been tribal treasurer.

Oklahoma was a one-party state back in that era. She came to the conclusion [that] two parties were better. In [two-party] government, politics was more transparent; you could really get people out of office that weren’t doing a good job. She resolved that she would get active in Republican politics. Her temperament was pretty conservative, although awfully independent. I would call her a very emancipated person long before that was as common as perhaps it is today.

She became active, and I grew up with politicians like Henry Bellmon, who was the first Republican governor, or Dewey Bartlett, who was the second, and then later both United States senators. Or Bud Wilkinson, the great OU coach who ran for the Senate in 1964. All of them were sort of in and out of the house. It was pretty modest, but she was the most important Republican organizational worker in the north part of our county, so she met all these people.

Eventually, in the mid-’70s while I was in graduate school at OU, she was persuaded to run for the state house, which was quite an enormous undertaking. She didn’t have any money. She was a bank teller living in a little 1,400-square-foot house. My dad worked on airplanes at Tinker Air Force Base, and I was busy in graduate school.

I did a few little things in the campaign but not very much. Then come election night, she lost very narrowly. She had literally 48 or 49 percent of the vote, had gotten more votes than any winner has ever gotten. I came to the conclusion that she had lost largely because she tried to be both the manager and the candidate. And Rule Number 1 in politics in any kind of race, you can’t be both.

I urged her to run again. I said, “If you will run again, I’ll run this. I promise it won’t be like last time.” I never thought she’d take me up on that or I probably wouldn’t have made the commitment. But, in early ’78, I was in London on a Fulbright, she contacted me and said, “You know, I’m running. When are you coming home?” And we laughed because she knew I was coming back in June of ’78.

I spent most of my time managing her race and letting her do what she did best, which was be a terrific candidate. People liked her. She was good at the doorstep. She had a lot of friends throughout the community. And we won! She went on and had a wonderful career and returned to the state house and got elected to the state senate.

I always ran her campaigns. And through her, it got me interested. Number 1, I loved running campaigns. When it was over, I did think of football again. I love team sports, and politics is a team sport. A watch party is a lot like a locker room after a contest. There’s a bonding, win or lose, between the people you fought together for some common objective.

I started running political campaigns for free at first. Eventually, a guy came that wanted to run for something bigger, a county commissioner seat, I think. He said, “Well, I’ll pay you.” So I did it and got paid. Not long after that, I ended up getting an offer to take one year out of academic life and become the executive director of the Oklahoma Republican Party in December of ’79, January of ’80, somewhere around there.

Then there was another job offer and another, and so I finished up my degree but ended up getting into politics, had a succession of staff positions, and then was elected Republican state chairman in 1985. [I] did that for two terms and then replaced my mom briefly in the state senate for about three years. She retired because my dad had Alzheimer’s, and my grandmother, who was living with them, was quite ill. So she left to look after them.

I held the senate seat, and then three years later I got an opportunity to come to Washington to be the executive director for the National Republican Campaign Committee, which is the committee that runs Republican house races across the country.

Mom came out of retirement, retook the seat, and went on to finish my term and did another one. I think we’re the only mother-son-mother combination in state senate history in Oklahoma.

Sounds like an incredible woman. I wish I could have met her.

She was absolutely amazing. She was well respected in the Oklahoma legislature. There’s a portion of I-35 that runs through our old district that’s named after her now. When she passed away in 2004, there were five former governors, Democrat and Republican, at her funeral and close to 2,000 people. Her impact was pretty profound, pretty amazing.

So, then you found yourself going to head the National Republican Campaign Committee?

Yeah, the head of the NRCC for two years. [Then I] came back, focused on my firm again, and we had an amazing ’94 election. We basically ran political campaigns, and in ’95 I became the secretary of state in Oklahoma, which is a gubernatorial appointee. It’s not an elected position. In that capacity, I was Frank Keating’s legislative liaison and principal political advisor for four years.

Then I was asked to come to Washington, D.C., in ’99 to become chief of staff for the Republican National Committee on the eve of the election. I did, and we had a pretty good year—the first time in 48 years the Republicans won the presidency, the House, and the Senate— although, to be fair, we already had the House and Senate. We just held onto them.

I was splitting time between Washington, D.C., and Oklahoma. My friend and congressman, J. C. Watts, announced in July 2002 that he was not going to run for reelection. We all tried to talk him out of it. I basically knew that by mid-June, and decided, well, if I’m never going to do this as an elected official again, this is probably my last opportunity. It’s going to be a competitive race and, frankly, I thought I could win it and I didn’t think any of the other likely Republican candidates could.

It was still a very Democratic district. And, if anything, it had become somewhat more Democratic because of redistricting. [This was] actually good for me in retrospect because [it was] the heart of the old Chickasaw Nation, where I had lots of family and friends, most of whom were not Republicans, but it gave me a network, a web of relationships that other Republicans couldn’t match and other candidates couldn’t match, quite frankly. The Chickasaws were very helpful. They have been in every one of my campaigns, very supportive financially, organizationally—they’ve just been terrific to me.

So we ended up in Congress, much to my surprise. If you’d told me at the beginning of 2002 I’d be in Congress by the end of the year, I would have stood looking at you like you were crazy. But most things in my political life have been accidents rather than planning. The right door opened at the right moment, and I was well-positioned or lucky or well-connected.

So, then you find yourself elected to Congress, one of our first Native American congressmen.

It’s actually a funny story. There were two others. Ben Nighthorse Campbell was in the United States Senate. Great Northern Cheyenne. And Brad Carson from Oklahoma, who had been elected, [to the House] in 2000—served ’til 2004 and then ran for the Senate but was not successful—is a Cherokee.

I’d been here a couple months, maybe a little bit longer, and I get this call from Ben Nighthorse Campbell. Senator Campbell says, “Congressman, I don’t mean to be offensive in any way, but are you a Native American?” I said, “Yeah, I know I don’t look the part, but the joke of the family was always ‘your brother looks like he could lead a Chickasaw war party. You look like you’re one of the guys they brought back.’” So we were laughing at that. He said, “But you are a tribal citizen?” And I said, “Oh, yeah.” “You’re active with family connections?” “Yeah.” I went through the family history, and he said, “Well, I had heard that and I just want to, number one, as another Native American, welcome you to the Congress. But number two, let you know whether you know it or not, you’re going to pick up 2 or 3 million new constituents as soon as they figure this out. I just laughed about it, didn’t think anything more about it.

Lo and behold, literally a month or two later, I walk into the same office and there are five Native Americans sitting there. I introduced myself and said, “Well, why are you here? What can I do for you?” They said, “Well, really, we come up here to talk to some of our members on a tribal issue, and we went to all their offices and there wasn’t anything Native American in them.” This is before the Native American museum was built. “And so we talked to a Capitol security guard, said, ‘Is there anything Native American around here we can see?’ And he said, ‘Yeah. Just go up to Congressman Cole’s office. It’s all over the walls.’”

There’s portraits and blow guns and bows and dream catchers and war shields and a ceremonial Chickasaw mask and all sorts of things. I just always grew up around it. The house was always full of Native American art, things like that.

So, as usual, Senator Campbell was right. I mean, I obviously had a lot of tribal contact from my own tribes. We have 11 different tribes that are active in the district and 39 in the state. I knew a lot of those folks. But we also had other tribes that just began sort of showing up as they found out.

There were several high-profile fights—this is early on, and, unfortunately, during the [Jack] Abramoff saga. There were all kinds of efforts to try to limit the tribes’ ability to contribute to weakened sovereignty, and I always got involved in those battles in a very big way to try to defend the tribal rights.

I still have [Congress] members come to the office all the time with Indian questions. “Explain this to me. How does this work? Explain tribal sovereignty.” One of my best friends in Congress who’s sadly retiring this year has been a great champion for Native Americans—John Kline from Minnesota. He represents two tribes. He’s got the Shakopee Sioux and Prairie Island Sioux. Early in his career, he came down and said, “Explain this to me. Now tell me, I hear this from my tribes. What do you think? How does this fit in?”

I ended up doing that with a lot of different members. They’ll come to me for some sort of understanding or insight into Indian policy or Indian history.

Presently, you and your fellow Oklahoman are the two members who are enrolled. But can you tell me a little bit about the Native American Caucus at Congress?

Yeah, it’s a terrific Caucus. The Caucus has several dozen members, more than a hundred. It takes positions on Native American issues. It was growing long before I arrived. I think it was established by Dale Kildee from Michigan, who is the guy that was most instrumental in the House in passing the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, or IGRA, which has done so much across Indian Country. Indian gaming has let a lot of tribes, including my own, transform themselves economically and recapitalize themselves.

I was recruited pretty quickly to be a co-chairman. The Democratic chair, Betty McCollum from Minnesota, is a very good Democrat, very liberal Democrat. On Indian issues, we just see eye-to-eye. We’re interchangeable. And we both sit on the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee of the full Appropriations Committee. We control the biggest part of Indian funding, particularly for Indian health and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It’s a great relationship because we both work both sides of the House. She’s actually now what’s called the ranking Democrat or the top Democrat on the subcommittee.

We’ve worked very, very well together on everything from VAWA [the Violence Against Women Act] to the Tribal Law and Order Act. The majority of her party was for this. The majority of mine opposed, although not on the Indian issue. She was very helpful when we were passing tribal labor sovereignty through the House. She and Dan Kildee, and I think 25 or 30 other Democrats, stood up in a very politically courageous way to take down the side of tribal sovereignty against one of the great constituencies in their party. Betty McCollum and I may not agree on everything, but she’s not short of political courage, I’ll tell you that. And when you’re in a fight, you want her on your side instead of the other.

We have a lot of great members in our Caucus who will disagree on classic tax issues or labor issues or foreign policy issues, but they come together around Native American issues. I’ve seen them on both sides run considerable risk politically to advance the interest of Native Americans.

Tribes have gotten a lot more active. I think in the wake of Abramoff they became more involved. You see it in things like the passage of VAWA, where the tribal community was absolutely united across the board, and there are now more and more lobbyists who either are Native Americans or who lobby for Native Americans. And they do it in every way—financially, voting, lobbying—they have just gotten a lot better at this over the last decade, and Congress is responsive to that. It’s a pretty sophisticated group now on both sides of the aisle.

The American Bar Association awarded you the Congressional Justice Award in 2015 for your efforts with the reauthorization of VAWA. Tell us about challenges you had in trying to champion that and move that through.

It was an interesting piece because it should have been fairly routine—it’s a reauthorization, and the focus is on domestic violence. Had it been just a straight reauthorization, it would have just passed.

But the Democratic Senate at the time added four areas that they wanted to update VAWA. One had to deal with new provisions on gay/lesbian/transgender sexual orientation. There was something for immigrants, particularly illegal immigrant women who were caught in difficult situations; they could report without running the risk of deportation.

The great thing was they restored a level of sovereignty in cases of domestic violence and abuse to tribes so that they could prosecute non-Natives who were committing these offenses at horrific rates on Native lands. You know, hunters know where to hunt, fishermen know where to fish, predators know where to prey, and they do: A disproportionate number of rapes and domestic assaults were occurring on Indian land by non-Natives because they knew they couldn’t be apprehended there. There was federal authority but no state authority, and the tribe had no authority over non-Natives. These abuses were terrible and still are. It’s going to take a long time to deal with it. The Indians of all tribes felt very strongly [that] this was a power they should have.

Speaker [John] Boehner and Eric Cantor, the Republican leader, were trying to figure out if they could actually pass a Republican bill and go to conference and work on these things. And, of course, one of the great issues was tribal sovereignty. I made it very clear that I would not vote for any bill that did not keep that provision in it. As a matter of fact, the original Republican-based bill didn’t have it, and Darrell Issa from California and I worked together on an amendment that would restore sovereignty. Darrell’s got, I think, eight or nine tribes in his district, but [he’s] very good on this issue, and sat in the Judiciary Committee. So, we were working on the amendment, lining up support, and I got a call from Eric Cantor. Cantor said, “Tom, is there any way we can work on this issue where you can be for the bill?” I said, “Sure, I’m willing to sit down and talk with anybody.”

So, we had multiple discussions, and they improved the Republican bill greatly, but it wasn’t as good as the Democratic bill. I remember there was one particular session where we were in the leader’s office and he said, “Tom, you know, we’ve come a long way.” Which was true. “And you need to go back to the Native Americans and show them how far we’ve come.” I said, “Let me be very clear here. You’re talking to me like I’m your guy negotiating with them. You need to understand I’m their guy negotiating with you. I’m here to represent their point of view.”

So Boehner made the decision with Cantor that we would first put up the Republican bill, and if it passed, we’d go on. But if it didn’t, then the Democratic bill, the Senate bill, would have an opportunity to come to the floor, and if it got the votes—which meant you had to have a significant number of Republicans moving over to join with Democrats—then it would go straight to the president’s desk. And that’s what happened.

Basically, we put together a coalition. I think we had over 80 Republicans, and they weren’t all doing it simply because of the Native American issue, but probably the biggest chunk were. And we got it there. Cantor did not vote for the bill, but he and Speaker Boehner allowed it to come to the floor in the format in which it could ultimately pass. They could have bottled it up forever. As John Boehner said in conference, “Look, this is a hot potato. If you have a hot potato in your hand, the best thing to do is pitch it.”

It was a complex legislative maneuvering, but the Democrats crafted what I think was a pretty good bill in the United States Senate. They had the votes to get it through. When it got here, our people, particularly on the tribal issues, said this is superior to what we have. If you can’t match it in the Republican bill, then we’re going to work with the Democrats, and that’s basically what happened.

It took a few months to get it through. But at the end of the day, you had a bipartisan pro-Native American, pro-sovereignty position. Leadership on our side was wise enough to see that was not something they should or could resist, and they got out of the way and let us pass the legislation.

Very good. Thank you for your efforts in that, by the way.

It was really a joy to do, and I was very proud of my colleagues who voted for this. I’ve never seen Indian Country as unified as it was. We had these wonderful groups of Native American women up here going from office to office. They were quite a sight to behold. And, frankly, they had some of the most grueling stories of personal domestic assault and abuse that they had gone through with tribal officials, with law enforcement totally unable to do anything about it. It was a good civics lesson for all of Indian Country that when tribes come together in great common causes like this and work together, they do have enough friends to prevail.

I helped lead the Republican effort in 2010 to get compensation for mismanagement of trust land and worked to cross the aisle in the tribal law and order bill, and we passed that in 2010 as well, if I recall.

The Native American Caucus—do they have any particular issues that they’re looking at working on for the rest of this session?

We always have a range of issues. Some of them are things that come up episodically. We’ve been working for a long time at one—the Carcieri Fix. That’s been a major issue for us. Betty and I both see it as basically a creation of two classes of Indian tribes. Getting a legislative fix to that has been a high priority, but it’s been a tough one because we have a lot of states and localities on the other side of us on that issue.

Second, we continue to push hard on the appropriations front. We’ve made a lot of progress in five years, but Indian health care has never been comparably funded. We’re also working very hard on school construction and made a little progress this year. But the state of Bureau of Indian Education/Schools is simply not comparable to what it is in neighboring communities and what it should be.

There are always other individual pieces of legislation. Recently we had one trying to defend the tribal sovereignty along the border between Oklahoma and Texas. It’s a big debate over who owns this land. The Bureau of Land Management has thousands of acres, and we want to make sure it’s actually former Indian land along the river. The tribes ought to have the right of first purchase if it’s going to go back into the public domain. Some groups think it ought to go to the adjacent landholders, and they certainly should have the right to bid as well. But if that’s former tribal land that was basically taken over the objection of the tribes that had it, they ought to have the right of first refusal in the competitive pricing situation.

Very good. Well, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a privilege.