I have been misstating the percentage of American Indian voters in Nevada’s 4th Congressional District. The official Census number is 1.06 percent, but that figure only uses the “one race” identifier and it’s far lower than what tribes cite as their population of tribal membership. Indeed, other databases say that American Indians are nearly 2 percent of the population, 1.97 percent. But even that figure might be low. There are 86,000 people in the district who told Census that they are “two or more races.” (That would total about 12 percent of the district.) There is really no way to break down that member in terms of how many tribal members . But the percentage I used is clearly overstated. So from now on I’ll use the figure of 2 percent for Native Americans in Nevada’s 4th congressional district.
Let’s be clear about the Nevada Democratic Caucus next Saturday: It’s not democratic. The outcome of the caucus will be determined by a long list of rules ranging from geography to the number of people who voted in the last election.
This is not a one-person, one-vote ballot. It will be more like a neighborhood jam session where someone from a community is elected a delegate to a county convention on April 2. Then at those meetings more delegates are elected to the state party’s convention. Then another vote selecting delegates to the Democratic National Convention in July.
So it’s possible for a candidate to have a strong showing on “caucus day” and end up with fewer delegates than the other side. That’s exactly what happened eight years ago when Hillary Clinton won the Nevada caucus (with 51 percent of the vote) only to earn three fewer delegates than Barack Obama.
“When the rules and ratios regarding delegate apportionment were designed for Nevada, the intent of legislators was to slightly favor smaller, more rural counties,” wrote Cory Warfield, who is the state party’s caucus director. “These counties will generally have a disproportionate number of delegates compared to larger counties.”
And in rural Nevada, that means American Indian voters have a bit more say in the outcome.
Most of the tribe’s membership lives near Schurz in Mineral County, roughly 1,200 people. In 2008 only 75 people attended the caucus yet under party rules that county’s vote counts more than 75 people in, say, Reno. This is a party description of the rule: “The results of the ratio formula will be rounded up at 0.5 or higher and rounded down below 0.5. Here’s an example of how it works: Mineral County has 1,089 registered Democrats, which falls under precinct apportionment category D: 1 delegate per 15 registered Democrats in each precinct. Precinct 1 in Mineral County has 124 Democrats, which is divided by 15 and rounded down to determine that the precinct receives 8 delegates.”
To put that in plain English: Rural counties have extra voting power and that’s particularly important in counties where most of the non-Indians vote Republican. So if tribal members show up, they get to pick the winner in Mineral County.
The party is explicit in this weighted vote toward rural voters. The same memo cites this example: Esmeralda County has 122 Democrats and 25 delegates, while Lincoln County has 711 Democrats and 71 delegates. Lincoln County has more more than five times the number of registered Democrats compared to Esmeralda County, but less than three times the number of delegates.
There are 27 tribes in Nevada, and, unlike in most states, that includes tribal governments that are based both in rural and urban areas, such as Reno and Las Vegas.
Nevada is becoming more and more a state that favors Democrats because of the population growth in urban areas — and the increasing diversity of the state.
Both the Clinton and the Sanders campaign say they are organized across the state and in tribal communities. The Clinton campaign has been in Nevada for months and has had listening sessions across the state. But which side is more organized, both for the caucus, and for the delegate election process that follows? We won’t know the answer until summer.
Indian Country is a key voting bloc in the Democrat’s campaign to win more House seats. Sort of.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is focusing on 19 seats that the party thinks it can win from Republicans, labeled as the “Red to Blue” campaign. Three of those seats have a signifiant number of Native American voters.
The most important seat on the Democrats’ list is Montana where Denise Juneau is challenging Rep. Ryan Zinke. Montana is an ideal state for a Democratic pickup. Montana’s demographics are changing and there will be a lot of ballot and fundraising chaos should the Republicans nominate Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. And, Native Americans already have a good turnout track record during presidential years.
In a normal election cycle, a focus on two seats with Native candidates would be a good thing as part of a diversity foundation.
But this year I think Democrats could do more. A lot more. There are congressional districts that could get a huge boost from a strong Native American candidate. One of the best things that the Liberal Party did in its sweep of Canada’s election was recruit strong Aboriginal candidates. (If you want to see how powerful that was in one image, check Adam Scotti’s official picture of Justin Trudeau asking Jody Wilson-Raybould to be the nation’s Attorney General.)
Where this DCCC list most conflicts with the principle of diversity is Arizona 1st congressional district. (Even though it’s already represented by a Democrat, the seat is still a target because it’s expected to be so close). This district is the most Native in the country — more than 22 percent and growing — and it’s time for Native representation. One. Who. Can. Win. The Democrats should be recruiting star candidates from tribal government, academia, or business. In an election cycle where outsiders are being rewarded by voters, this is a “ya’ think?” moment.
Two other districts with Native candidates are not on the list. Probably because they are considered long shots at this point. True. But this will not be a normal election year.
Those districts are Washington’s 5th district where former Colville Chairman Joe Pakootas is running again; and Arizona’s 2nd district where Victoria Steele, a Seneca, is polling well but lacks money. Both Steele and Pakootas face primary challengers.
I would add one more seat to any target list: Alaska. Rep. Don Young is vulnerable even if that doesn’t show up in polling. And, like Arizona 1st, it’s time for an Alaska Native to represent Alaska. Democrats should be relentless in their recruiting (and that actually should be easy) and make certain that any candidate has enough money to be competitive. There are so many talented Alaska Natives who could win. (Note to Democrats: Do I need to put a list together for you? Or will you do your homework yourself?) It’s time.
The DCCC says this is only the first list. There will be more down the road. The sooner the better.
In case you are counting: There is a total of six seats where American Indian and Alaska Native voters could make a difference. When the goal is to win 30 seats, that’s not bad.
There has never been an election with more opportunity for Indian Country. Why? Because we are the ultimate outsiders. And in 2016 that’s the winning hand.
Native Americans make up .37 percent of Congress (that’s about one-third of one percent) compared to about 2 percent of the country’s population as a whole.
If that number seems too small, consider this one, only .23 percent of the population invests more than $200 on political campaigns. Any campaign. But that tiny fraction, about one-fifth of one percent, spends more than $1.18 billion every cycle. The New York Times boiled the total down to 158 families who are responsible for half of all presidential campaign spending. (Tribes and tribal enterprises do spend significant amounts on political campaigns, more on that shortly.)
Put these numbers together and it’s pretty clear why American Indians and Alaska Natives lose elections. There is never enough money, the basic fuel that makes winning elections possible.
Look at the campaigns of Victoria Steele in Arizona. She’s won a seat in the legislature in 2012, raising more than $44,000. When she ran for re-election two years later there was more money, $108,888. The reason: That tiny faction that sends checks to political candidates has a criteria that tops ideology, they want to invest in winners. Rule Number One is you win an election, and more money follows.
Steele, who is Seneca, is on the exact course that political experts recommend as the route to Congress. Run for the legislature, gain experience, and then take a shot. About half of the women in Congress followed this path.
Here is the problem. That next step costs a lot more money and Steele has to beat candidates who are already well-funded. In the primary election contest Steele has been polling well: She trails incumbent Martha McSally by about nine points, according to The Arizona Star, and Steele leads her primary opponent Matt Heinz. But in the money race she’s a distant third. McSally has raised $3.8 million, Heinz $407,387 and Steele only $99,817.
Nearly all of Steele’s contributions are coming from individuals. In fact she only reports one Political Action Committee, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.
In Montana, Denise Juneau started off her fundraising by breaking a record for a Democrat in that state. Juneau reported raising $263,803 from 1,029 individual donors, 85 percent of whom are from Montana. (She also recently won an important endorsement from EMILY’s list which should boost the next fundraising quarter.) Juneau also received some 17 percent of her funding from Political Action Committees.
The bad news is Juneau still trails Ryan Zinke, her Republican opponent, by a significant margin. Zinke’s annual report shows him raising $2,613,737. And he raised more money from PACs than Juneau has raised in total, $301,200 from a variety of corporate and political interest PACs, many advocating coal and other resource extraction. Zinke also spends a lot of money, more than $2 million for the year. But that still leaves him a lot of money, $743,983.
But within Steele and Juneau’s financial report there is a stunning gap: Where is the deep financial support from tribes, casinos, and other Native American enterprises?
The only Native American PAC to contribute directly to Juneau is $1,500 from the National Indian Gaming Association Sovereignty PAC. Another contributor, the Turquoise PAC sounds cool (Native artists bundling cash?) but according to OpenSecrets.org, the PAC is mostly corporations such as Blue Cross/Blue Shield although it also includes the Pueblo of Pojoaque. About a half-dozen tribes have donated to Juneau, and only one tribe, Puyallup, has given the maximum contribution. (Most tribes donate directly, as individuals, rather than via a PAC. The federal limits are $2,700 per election or $5,400 if you include the primary. PACs can give $5,000 per cycle.)
Over the last couple of years the National Indian Gaming Association’s Sovereignty PAC has been a contributor to campaigns, spending roughly $80,000 in the 2014 election and only about $23,000 so far this election cycle.
Overall tribal casino enterprises do donate considerably more to congressional candidates. According to OpenSecrets.Org the tribal gaming industry gave $5.4 million to Republican candidates and $7.2 million to Democratic ones. The top recipients of that money essentially reflect the current power structure in Washington.
Let me be clear here: Tribes and casinos are investing in these candidates because that’s the way the game is played. There are a lot of jobs in Indian Country at stake so it would be foolish for tribal interests to walk away entirely. It’s just not enough to say the system is rotten — it is — there also has to be a reasonable alternative. Especially if we all agree that Congress must include more Native voices.
Let’s look deeper at some of the numbers. The only two Native Americans in Congress — the 0.37 Percent Club — run serious fundraising operations.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, started the year with nearly a million in the bank. He’s not even likely to need that much money because in his state and district it’s unlikely he will face much competition. Cole is Chickasaw. Nearly half of his funding comes from PAC sources, 47.4 percent. Markwayne Mullins, R-Oklahoma, and member of the Cherokee Nation, reported contributions of $560,980 — and 61 percent of that came from PACs.
It works for Cole and Mullins because they reflect the status quo. And that status quo is too often supported by tribal contributions.
Last May, for example, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, and Chairman of the Subcommittee on Indian, Insular, and Alaska Native Affairshad a heated exchange with then Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn about the issue of land into trust. Young said “tribal advocates” were trying to undermine his work and pour gasoline on a political fire. “I’m going to suggest we play ball straight. This is not to start an issue or try to destroy the effects of this committee,” Young said. “I hope everybody understands that. Because I do not forgive very well …. Not once have I not served the American Indians and Alaska Natives.” Washburn, however, called this an attack on tribal sovereignty. “You’ve made plain your concerns about tribal governments. And you’ve not hidden your prejudices, and I respect that because although I disagree with you, I’m glad you’re not running from your convictions.”
And did this attack on sovereignty cost Young money? Not so much. He has more than a half million dollars in the bank and so far no serious competitor. He is number six on the list of those in Congress who receive the most donations from tribal gaming. What’s more, several tribes and Alaska Native corporations have continued to donate toward Young’s re-election. The Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde in Oregon gave Young the maximum. And Young received a $2,500 contribution from the Fond Du Lac Band Federal Political Fund in December.
Compare that to the campaigns of a tribal leader. In Washington state, former Colville Chairman Joe Pakootas has raised $69,794 this quarter in his bid for Congress and two years ago he raised $202,163. Pakootas did receive many contributions directly from tribes in $500, $1,000, or even $2,500 increments. So it’s not that there was zero contributions from tribes, it’s that there was scant funding from Political Action Committees. Less than 7 percent of Pakootas funding came from that sort of contribution.
Pakootas did receive more $6,338 from Democratic Party committees (most of from the region). And that’s important because there is an attitude in American politics that candidates must survive a fundraising trial by fire. So Native American candidates not only must sell themselves to a general population, then they have to come up with a strategy that taps into that tiny fraction of Americans who fund election campaigns.
I remember visiting with a friend once who was a member of Congress. We were riding on public transportation. His phone rang. “I can’t talk to you on this line,” he said. “Call back.” So he put his congressional office phone away, answered another cell phone, and then spent the next few minutes asking for contributions. Imagine doing this dozens of time every day. Honing your pitch until you have it just right. Every word you say is designed to translate into asking for money.
Of course there are a lot of better ways to fund candidates. I’ve long supported public funding of candidates to make the competition more fair. Seattle is engaged in an interesting experiment now with “$100 election vouchers” so that citizens can invest in candidates without spending their own money.
One solution: Small donors rule
We can and must do better at supporting our own candidates. One way to do that is focusing on the “small” money campaign. That’s when folks send $10 or $20 to the candidates who would represent Indian Country. This is exactly what’s working for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders right now. He has raised $54 million from small donors, nearly three-quarters of his contributions according to OpenSecrets.Org.
A new study by U.S. PIRG Education Fund looked at the presidential race and said Congress should change the law to encourage and reward small donors with matches of six-to-one or more. “What this study shows is that under a small donor matching system, candidates would have a powerful incentive to change their fundraising strategy from what we see today to focus on everyday Americans,” the report said. “A small donor matching system … would make it rational to prioritize small contributions from regular Americans. Enacting a small donor matching program for all federal races would put everyday citizens back in the driver’s seat of our democracy.”
In addition to Seattle, New York City and Maine reward candidates with small donor campaigns. Encouraging small donors is a reform makes a lot of sense. (Again: Add to that idea that complete public financing of elections. Just imagine how many good candidates from Indian Country would surface if they didn’t have to worry about raising money.)
I’d like to see a Native American small donor matching fund. It could work like this: An individual tribal member or Alaska Native shareholder could send a small donation to a congressional campaign and then a fund of would send in a multiple match. So $20 becomes $100 for every donor. Perhaps such a fund could set up tribe by tribe. Or through an intertribal political fund.
This would be a smart investment for tribes and casino enterprises too. It would connect tribal governments, enterprises, and Alaska Native corporations with their constituents in a shared outcome by matching their member contributions.
The US PRIG report cited a survey of “four Republican and Democratic congressional candidates who were outspent by an average of five-to-one by their opponents during the 2014 midterm elections. If a small donor matching program were in place for those candidates, the four would have closed the fundraising gap by an average of 40 percent. While a small donor program might not always result in participating candidates outpacing their big money opponents, it would give candidates with broad grassroots support a much better chance to run competitive campaigns.”
It’s time that Native American candidates had access to every tool that would make them competitive — and then go on to win.
So if billionaires can create PACs and SuperPacs, then tribes, Alaska Native corporations, and voter organizations, should be able to create Political Action Committees that match small donors (at least up to the current limits). I don’t know exactly what that framework would look like (note to lawyers: figure this out) but it could significantly boost the electability of Native American candidates.
In the meantime, if you want more Natives in office, remember it’s all about money. It will take big bucks to open up the 0.37 Percent Club to new members.
One of Canada’s most inspirational voices is running for office. Wab Kinew describes himself as “Father, Writer, Journalist, University Dude, Anishinaabemowin Advocate, Martial Arts Fan.” And add to that list: politician. He’s now a candidate for the Manitoba Legislature representing the New Democratic Party.
The NDP press release said Kinew “is a one-of-a-kind talent, named by the National Post as ‘an aboriginal leader seeking to engage with Canadians at large.’ He is the Associate Vice-President for Indigenous Relations at The University of Winnipeg and the author of the Number 1 national bestseller “The Reason You Walk: A Memoir.”
“I think that the best course of action for our economy is for our government to continue investing in creating good jobs — good jobs that pay good wages,” Kinew said in his announcement for the Winnipeg area seat. “The worst thing you could do right now is to begin cutting jobs, and I think that the second worst thing you could do right now is to begin cutting wages.”
This is big news for many reasons. First Kinew has star power that goes far beyond the Native community. He will be challenging the Liberal Party’s Leader (kind of like running against the other party’s candidate for governor) Rana Bokhar. So already the Canadian media is asking if this race mean Kinew will be on the NDP’s leadership team. Kinew responded to that question deftly, saying the party already has solid leadership.
Kinew has a huge social media following. He told his 45,000-plus Twitter followers on Tuesday: “I’ll need your help on this journey and would appreciate all of your support! Miigwech”
The provincial election is April 19.
This. Is how to enter a legislature as a member
Speaking of Canada, another win for a First Nation candidate. Melanie Mark, who is Nisga’a, Gitxsan, Cree, and Ojibway, swept into office with more than 60 percent of the vote and will represent the Vancouver-Mount Pleasant district.
According to The Georgia Straight newspaper, Mark focused her campaign on achieving a fairer deal for low-income people, highlighting the lack of affordable housing, the precarious job market, and rising tuition, medical-services, and B.C. Hydro fees.
“I don’t come from money or privilege, but I’m very fortunate. I achieved a degree in political science at SFU after attending several different schools, including Van Tech,” she wrote in The George Straight. “I’ve had a successful career as an advocate. From volunteering in organizations like Big Sisters and as president of the Urban Native Youth Association, to working with the Native Court Workers’ Association, Covenant House, the RCMP in Hazelton as a summer student, and as the national aboriginal project coordinator for Save the Children Canada’s–Sacred Lives Project, I built on these experiences to take on leadership roles in our community.”
Juneau: And the campaign goes on
Denise Juneau, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, and a candidate for Congress, revealed publicly that she is gay at a fundraiser. According to The Billings Gazette, Juneau “has been open for some time about her sexuality, without making a big deal of it.”
“She was very open about it. I think everyone appreciated how she handled it,” Dorothy Bradley told KTVQ news. The former state legislator and 1992 gubernatorial candidate who attended Juneau fundraiser. said, “She handled it like, ‘This is no big deal .. and, the campaign goes on.'”
The TV news report said “Juneau has already made Montana political history as the first Native American woman to win election to statewide office. Now, she’s also the first openly gay candidate to seek a federal post.”
Juneau is a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa Tribes and a descendant of the Blackfeet tribe. She was raised in Browning. In 2008 Juneau became the first American Indian woman to win a statewide office, Superintendent of Public Instruction. She was re-elected to that post in 2012.
Sanders announces initiatives at Affiliated NW tribes meeting
At the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Meeting this week, Nicole Willis announced that presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders was creating a policy advisory committee on Native American issues. She said the committee’s membership will be announced soon.
She said Sanders has already announced that he will continue President Obama’s tribal nations conference, keep a senior Native American advisor on staff at the White House, and work to restore tribal jurisdiction to improve local decision-making. He also pledged to expand the Violence Against Women Act and find additional funding for the Generation Indigenous initiative.
Willis said that Sen. Sanders pledged to have a climate change summit within the first 100 days of his administration and that tribes would be included as full participants.
Willis joined the Sanders campaign last week as an advisor. She is a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon, worked for the Obama campaign, and was deputy director for First Americans at Obama for America.