Athlete, Artist, Indian Chief

From dark horse to Nighthorse, it's been one hell of a ride for Ben Campbell.

In the tent, Campbell moves easily through the people who are drawn to him, shaking hands and accepting the occasional hug. He stops often to talk or listen intently, the lines around his mouth and eyes set in his basset-hound face. But then he smiles, a perfect, white-toothed smile, a smile so friendly and warm that even those who left his service in disgust remember it fondly.

Becky Mizell, whose name tag announces that she works for a medical firm in Pueblo, wants to congratulate Campbell for switching to the Republican Party. He thanks her, then leans close to confide that in the old steel-mill town, the move made him "a lot of enemies" among Democrats who'd supported him from the beginning of his political career. "Don't let them get you down," she advises. "You did the right thing."

Ken and Marsha Hobert, business managers for the Alpaca Owners & Breeders Association in Estes Park, tease Campbell because he no longer comes to their annual motorcycle rally. The senator, recently returned from a rally with 300,000 other bikers in Sturgis, South Dakota, and looking forward to the Four Corners Iron Horse Rally near his home in Ignacio over Labor Day weekend, politely assures the couple that he'd love to attend when his busy schedule allows.

And then there is Kogovsek, whose former seat Campbell wrested from incumbent Republican Mike Strang in 1986. "We'd be sunk without you, Ben," Kogovsek says.

Campbell nods. "I'll be damned if I'm going to sit by and watch us break another promise to Indians," he says. "We'll keep fighting."

Back from the fair, Campbell is speaking to the National Indian Gaming Association at its annual meeting in the Colorado Convention Center. He's left the hat behind and added a gray knit coat; his hair, bushy as a coyote's tail, is pulled back but unbraided.

Casinos on Indian reservations have been "phenomenally" successful, Campbell says, but that success has a price. Tribes that distributed the gaming profits among their people, rather than reinvesting the money, have eroded the necessity of their children getting an education. And they also must be careful of a "white backlash" from businesspeople who want access to the same exemptions that allow federally recognized Indian tribes to set up gaming establishments.

"Non-Indians," Campbell warns, are trying to bypass the federal statutes by having legislators introduce special bills designating them as Indian tribes, "when, in fact, they have no Indian blood."

This leads to a subject close to Campbell's heart--through which may or may not pump Indian blood; he has no way to prove it. "The paradox is that they are forcing the government to issue cards that say who is a real Indian," Campbell says. "If you're of Indian descent, you shouldn't have to prove it. We're the only category of people that has to get government approval to say we're real."

As the senator steps down, his chief of staff, Ginnie Kontnik, intercepts a tall black man making his way toward Campbell. The senator doesn't have much time today, Kontnik tells Stan Washington, chairman of NAACP economic development in Las Vegas.

Washington has come to Denver on behalf of the Moulin Rouge, "the only land-based hotel/casino in North America licensed to African-Americans." The hotel/casino's owners are desperate for investment capital--as well as the special considerations allowed Indian gaming--and they hope to get both from a tiny Connecticut tribe, the Mashantucket Pequot, that has made big bucks from its gambling operations.

The matter will be coming up for a tribal vote in a few weeks. Now Washington is trying to set up a telephone conference call between a Las Vegas congressman who supports the hotel/casino management and Campbell, in hopes that "the only American Indian in Congress" can be persuaded to influence the Mashantucket Pequots' decision.

Kontnik tells Washington to call Campbell's office, then whisks the senator away to his district headquarters on Pennsylvania Street. He's got a plane to catch to Durango early that afternoon "on Mesa Airlines," she says, rolling her eyes, "and you know how unreliable they are."

In late July, Campbell, irate over repeated delays and cancellations of his weekly flights home, had called for a congressional investigation of the New Mexico-based commuter airline, citing concerns about safety and mismanagement. Company officials complained that the senator was going public with his complaints rather than trying to work with the airline on any problems, as retaliation because Mesa had refused to hold a flight twenty minutes for him.

But if Campbell is going to hook up with the 40,000 bikers waiting for him at the Iron Horse rally, Mesa is his only option. That, or an eight-hour drive from Denver.

Campbell's district office, located a few blocks from the State Capitol, was built in 1890 by renowned architect Frank Edbrooke as a home for the Alfred Butters family. Butters, who'd served as Speaker of the House for the Territorial Legislature and then gone on to become a state senator in the initial Colorado General Assembly, was only the first politician to occupy the building. Democratic Senator Tim Wirth had his offices there almost a century later and then passed them on to his successor, Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

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