Henry Red Cloud's recent trip to the Dakota Access pipeline protest camp near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation filled him with conviction, compelling the South Dakota Democratic candidate to dance, sing — and campaign.
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The 56-year-old Oglala Sioux green energy entrepreneur hopes the vigor focused on defeating the $3.8 billion, four-state Dakota Access pipeline will help win his longshot bid for election to the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which regulates oil pipelines.
Red Cloud, a direct descendent of famous Lakota warrior and leader Red Cloud, is applying a new approach among tribal members working to stop oil development: become a regulator instead of having to ask for their help. He is one of at least two Native Americans nationwide running for such a post.
"A whole lot of people are going to start voting here in the state of South Dakota," Red Cloud, who lives near Oglala, told The Associated Press. "I'm also bringing the awareness out on what the PUC regulates, and it's all about currently what's happening in Standing Rock camp."
Since April, there's been a tribal protest at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers in southern North Dakota, and it has grown considerably. Owned by Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners, the $3.8 billion, 1,172-mile project would carry nearly a half-million barrels of crude oil daily from North Dakota's oil fields through South Dakota and Iowa to an existing pipeline in Patoka, Illinois,
The Republican-controlled Public Utilities Commission, which approved the Dakota Access pipeline project last year, is leading South Dakota in a "downward spiral" rather than toward its huge potential for leadership in renewable energy, said Red Cloud, who is running as a Democrat. He is running on a green energy platform for a six-year term against Chris Nelson, a Republican former secretary of state who has served on the three-member commission since 2011.
Nelson, 52, has been campaigning on keeping electricity rates low and expanding broadband internet access in rural areas. He said he has a record of making decisions absent a political agenda or personal whims.
"What I think of an oil pipeline is absolutely irrelevant in the job that I do as a Public Utilities commissioner," Nelson said, adding that he has to make judgments on each case based on the facts presented and the law that applies.
It will be hard for Red Cloud to get elected in the strongly Republican state. The first-time candidate recently told a group of about 20 aging Democrats in Fort Pierre that he's looking for strong turnout by Native American voters.
Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer with the Minnesota-based Indigenous Environmental Network, said Red Cloud's bid is exciting because pipeline opponents have spent so much time and energy struggling from the outside against the commission in the permitting process.
It was the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, and the efforts to thwart them before state regulators, that helped illuminate for many people the power the Public Utilities Commission holds, he said.
"It's nice to see Native folks get the motivation to run for office like this, but it's the content of his character and the qualities that he brings that really send it over the top as far as my support for him," Goldtooth said.
Red Cloud owns a solar air heating system company and co-manages the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center, which offers green jobs training. He plans to return this month to deliver a mobile solar power plant to the North Dakota protest camp hundreds of miles from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.
Standing Rock Sioux Tribe member Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun said the protest south of her home in Bismarck, North Dakota, has propelled her Public Service Commission campaign "into insanity."
Hunte-Beaubrun, a Democrat, opposes the Dakota Access project, but she's taken a pragmatic position on pipelines in general, recognizing the role oil production plays in North Dakota's economy.
Still, Hunte-Beaubrun wants to make sure that tribes in North Dakota are represented on the commission, so she's challenging Republican Julie Fedorchak. So far, voters have seemed receptive about her work, said Fedorchak, who was appointed in 2012 and elected in 2014.
"It is 2016, and there is no reason why we shouldn't have a room of speckled people instead of a solid sheet of paper," Hunte-Beaubrun said.
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