Richardson woos Catawbas

Democrat presidential hopeful Bill Richardson says on his Web site that he broke the Guinness world record for handshakes when he was campaigning for governor of New Mexico in 2002.

There were only about 15 hands to shake Saturday morning at the Catawba Indian Nation's Longhouse Tribal Center, but Richardson still made history by becoming the first presidential hopeful to ever campaign at the Catawba Indian Reservation.

The stop was Richardson's second in a series of stops he made in the Upstate. Earlier, he had breakfast at the York County Democratic headquarters in Rock Hill, where about 150 people came to meet him.

"I think it's wonderful that he called us and wanted to come down here," said interim Assistant Chief Claude Ayers. "First time anybody's ever done that."

Richardson was a familiar face to some present, including former Catawba Chief Gilbert Blue. In 1993, Richardson was chairman of the Indian Affairs subcommittee that pushed the bill that got the Catawbas federal recognition and allowed them to reach a land settlement agreement.

"Bill deserves the credit for that because it helped us get the ball rolling, and time was critical," said U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., who was on hand Saturday for the visit. "He made space for it on the subcommittee's calendar so we could get it before summer recess."

Richardson said he came out not only to garner political support, but to reacquaint himself with the Catawbas and show his support for Native American issues.

Richardson, as governor of New Mexico, has been a supporter of Native American rights and has said if elected president, he will create a Department of Indian Affairs at the cabinet level.

"I just think we've got to deal with Native American issues and give it more attention then we have in the past, with health care, education and tribal recognition issues," he said.

During the visit, Richardson asked what concerns the Catawbas had. They told him about the battle they're having with the state over whether they should be required to pay for public schooling for their children. They also expressed concerns about how the land settlement was handled in 1993. Ayers said they didn't have a full understanding of how things worked at the time and would like to have things looked at again.

Bill Harris, a candidate for chief in the Catawba election that will be held later this month, said he was pleased that Richardson came to visit and listen to them.

"I think it's nice to have someone who's in the Democratic Party showing an interest in Native Americans," he said. "I think the fact that someone of Bill Richardson's integrity is addressing the issues of Native American claims will bring it to light."

Harris said most federal candidates don't think the Native American vote is important.

"The tragedy is that Native Americans don't constitute what you would call a voting majority," he said.

On other issues, Richardson has said if he's elected president, he will work to de-authorize the war in Iraq and withdraw all troops in six months. The money that is saved could be better implemented by putting it toward education and health-care needs, he said. Richardson, who has served as an ambassador to the United Nations, also has said he will try to increase international confidence in the United States.

Richardson made a good impression at the breakfast in Rock Hill and brought out a diverse group, said Jim Watkins, chairman of the York County Democrats.

"Of course, we had a vast majority of Democrats, but we also had Republicans and independents," he said. "I was impressed by that, and I think that means that he can draw across the spectrum."

Much of Richardson's time was spent just talking to people, Watkins said.

"He's a smart guy, but at the same time he has a common touch," he said.