The Comeback Kid

A political outcast rises again on the Leech Lake Reservation

Standing beside his white Monte Carlo in the parking lot of the Northern Lights Casino and Hotel, Archie LaRose doesn't look much like a politician. Tall and barrel-chested, he sports a shock of short, spiky black hair with a fluffy rattail. His smooth-skinned face makes him look younger than his 33 years. But in his tumultuous and often controversial two-year stint as the secretary-treasurer of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe--the second most powerful elected office on the reservation, and the one he is again seeking now--LaRose learned a few things about the political game.

So before heading out for another evening on the campaign trail, LaRose decides to take care of some last-minute hygiene and carefully clips his fingernails. As he does this, he casts his eyes across the half-full parking lot at the recently expanded casino. If circumstances were different, he might take this opportunity to pop inside. Maybe he would thank some of the voters who supported him in his recent primary victory. Maybe he would try to win over some new voters for the upcoming general election.

But circumstances don't permit that. Six months ago, LaRose received a formal notice barring him from the premises of Northern Lights and the other two other casinos owned by the Leech Lake band. The letter, signed by the band's gaming director and security chief, said there was reason to believe that LaRose had committed an act "that threatened the reputation and/or safety of persons of Leech Lake Gaming."

Before the fall: Archie LaRose at a Leech Lake band forum last summer
Mike Mosedale
Before the fall: Archie LaRose at a Leech Lake band forum last summer

"It was just another insult," LaRose says with a shrug. "They didn't even bother to say what I did." The ban is the least of his troubles. After a long and acrimonious power struggle, his colleagues on the Leech Lake Tribal Council voted him out of a job this July. He appealed to the Leech Lake Tribal Court. The court ruled in his favor and returned the matter to the tribal council. It didn't make any difference. After a second hearing, the vote was the same. LaRose was out of a job. Now he is hip-deep in a bid to recapture his old office and, like any seasoned pol, he exudes optimism about his prospects.

"I'm a warrior and I'm going to come back, my friend," he says. "I've got a strong heart, and a lot of guts and courage. I'm not going to stay down." As he heads east on Highway 200, past the northern Minnesota resort town of Walker, LaRose cranks up the Rod Stewart disco classic "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" and lays out his itinerary for the evening: three hours of door-knocking in two of the reservation's most remote backwoods settlements, Smokey Point and Kego Lake. There aren't a lot of votes here--maybe two dozen households in all--but the locals supported LaRose in the primary. He wants to let them know he doesn't take their votes for granted.

"Two years ago, a lot of elders told me they never had a candidate come to their houses before," LaRose says. "I believe that's what won me the election." On the reservation, some candidates avoid door-to-door campaigning altogether, instead relying on family and clan affiliations to get out the vote. But LaRose has made face-to-face interaction the main tenet of his political gospel. And since he's been out of work, he's been able to spend a lot of time on the campaign trail. Sometimes he is out for eight hours a day, sometimes twelve or thirteen. Even his staunchest critics grudgingly concede admiration for his commitment to campaigning. "That boy gets out and he hustles and he knocks on every door," says tribal attorney Mike Garbow.

The effort has yielded results. Last month, after a successful battle to get his name listed on the primary ballot, LaRose finished first in a field of 14 candidates. The runner-up, a distant cousin of LaRose's named Donnie Headbird, trailed him by 20 points.

Door-knocking on the reservation is not without its hazards. In his last campaign for secretary-treasurer, LaRose was bitten by dogs on three occasions. So as he steers the Monte Carlo into the driveway of a supporter at Kego Lake and spots a big mixed-breed dog, he's wary. "Oh, man, stiff tail. Not a good sign," he says. He honks the horn, waits for a resident to come corral the dog, and then warily sidles up to the front door.

Inside, he is greeted by an old friend from Cass Lake, Rodney Johnson. After a few pleasantries, the conversation turns to LaRose's reelection bid. Johnson ventures that there might be an effort to buy votes. The practice has gone on for years on the reservation, Johnson claims: Sometimes people are given money for their votes, sometimes pills or liquor. But LaRose tells Johnson he is not worried about this. "I always tell people, 'Go ahead and take their money and vote how you want. They can't follow you into the booth,'" he says.

At that, he launches into his talking points. He vows to push for "the programs"--like free snow plowing and grass cutting for elders--and to fight "misspending." He points with pride to his role in eliminating an extra layer of management in the tribal government and his efforts to have the band's financial affairs scrutinized by outside auditors.

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