Indian Country politics and public policy

Commentary by Mark Trahant

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Cover photo: Rep. Paulette Jordan via Facebook

 

Rethinking tribal policy at the state level

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Elections are about ideas. What should our world look like? How do tribal nations, Alaska Native corporations, and communities fit into the American experience?

Elections are about tactics. Who runs? Are there resources? (And, when I say resources, I really mean, cash money.) And, does that make it possible to win?

Elections are about power. Do you have the votes to change the world? To protect a pipeline? Or to sell coal in a world that is shifting away from fossil fuels?

Elections are about people. The people who expect the Indian health clinic to have enough money to pay for a hospital stay. Or the people that decide how medical care should be funded, and who’s even eligible.

And elections are never forever. There is always another ahead. And that’s true win or lose. If you win, get ready to defend the gains you’ve made. If you lose, pick up the pieces, and start working for the next ballot.

Let’s examine 2016 and what worked, what needed work, and what must be rethought.
At one point more than a hundred candidates were running for Congress, state legislatures, and a variety of state offices. That is fabulous. Yes, the field was narrowed after primary contests, and, of course, the general election. But the point is you gotta run to win. So many talented people from across Indian Country gave elective office a shot. (In fact, for me, the one take away from this election: We have some incredibly talented people out there. And that talent is not disappearing just because voters didn’t discover them.)

There are some extraordinary hurdles. Money is a big one. There has to be at least enough money so that the Native candidates get consideration by voters. Then again. This election was a bit odd. Money played less a role than you would think.

Chase Iron Eyes (Standing Rock Sioux) ran a frugal campaign. At one point he was basically selling t-shirts to finance his enterprise (although he did receive more money toward the end). And the result: His opponent easily won re-election with 69 percent of the vote, while Iron Eyes was stuck at 25 percent. This is not as bad as it looks because the Democrat-NPL candidate for governor only earned 19 percent of the vote. And the party’s Senate candidate: 17 percent.

What this tells me? Iron Eyes has a base of support. It’s his first run and I know he learned a lot. So a next time? Something to think about.

On the other hand, Denise Juneau (Mandan Hidatsa Arikara) broke fundraising records for a Native American running for Congress as a challenger (it’s way easier if you are an incumbent). She raised more than $2 million in an extraordinarily expensive House race. But Juneau demonstrated success. She was competitive. And that will be important in future races, too.

Indeed, the match between a well-funded incumbent and a challenger from Indian Country was true in Washington state, too, where former Colville Chairman Joe Pakootas ran against Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, a member of Republican leadership.

And elections are never forever: It’s entirely possible that one of the Republicans that Iron Eyes, Juneau, or Pakootas, ran against could be recruited to the new Trump administration. And, then, well, opportunity time. North Dakota’s Kevin Cramer could end up serving in the Trump administration as Energy Secretary (or more likely, a Deputy Secretary.)

This election cycle at least 31 Native American candidates ran unopposed. Often these were reservation-based districts where there aren’t as many potential Republicans who would surface as opponents. But Rep.-elect Tanwa Sanchez (Shoshone-Bannock) was also in this group, running in Portland, Oregon, as well as Rep. Ponke-We Victors in Kansas.
Another twist this year: Districts where both candidates are Native American. There were two such districts in Montana. Sen-elect Frank Smith (Assiniboine Sioux), a Democrat, defeated Rep. G. Bruce Meyers (Chippewa Cree) in the northern part of the state. And Sen.-elect Jason Small (Northern Cheyenne), a Republican, defeated incumbent Carolyn Pease Lopez (Crow).

This was also true in New Mexico where Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage narrowly won with 5,042 to GloJean Todacheene’s 4,246 votes. Both women are Navajo.

Wyoming will have a new member of its legislator, Affie Ellis (Navajo) was elected to the state Senate as a Republican, defeating an incumbent. She posted on Facebook: “I am humbled. And honored. Thank you for all the kind words of support. We knew it would be a tough race and I’m proud of our efforts. In the end, I secured 60% of the vote and am looking forward to serving in the Wyoming State Senate.”

 

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Nine Native Americans now serve in the Montana Legislature. That’s the most in the country both in percentage terms and as a total. (Trahant photo)

Montana continues to be the state with the largest Native American caucus in the legislature, 8 Democrats and 1 Republican. Rep. Susan Webber (Blackfeet) told The Montana Standard: “We’ve been literally and figuratively the minority’s minority. I know it looks like we have a lot of people in the Indian caucus, a lot of people were elected, but in reality it should be more. But just us getting in there, from my perspective, is a real positive.”

In Minnesota the Native American caucus is also a Native women’s caucus after the re-election of Rep. Susan Allen (Rosebud), Rep. Peggy Flanagan (White Earth Ojibwe), Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein (Standing Rock Sioux) and Rep.-Elect Jamie Becker Finn (Ojibwe).

And every election sows seeds of what can be. This one is no exception. In Idaho Rep. Paulette Jordan (Coeur d’Alene) showed how to get elected as a Democrat in a largely Republican state. Jordan is the only Democrat elected north of Boise and the legislature will be 84 percent controlled by Republicans, a super-majority.

Jordan posted on Facebook: “We worked hard, with great diligence and incredible dignity above all else. However, while we continue moving forward after a shocking outcome, it’ll be up to us, the next generation of millennials to make a more productive change our state and country needs. We have to chalk this up as a valuable lesson learned, while challenging ourselves to be more engaged and begin organizing in all the best ways possible. I remain optimistic for my community, as I have been blessed with your support and tasked to protect our base values for another term!”

Last week’s election will require new thinking and new alliances. And that is already happening in Alaska. A new coalition of Democrats, Republicans and Independents has flipped the state House away from Republicans. The state is facing a multi-billion budget crisis. One of the Republicans who joined what’s being called the Musk Ox Revolt is Gabrielle LeDoux who told The Alaska Dispatch News, “We’re hired to do a job, and the purpose of our job is not to keep our job. It’s to actually do something.”

There are six Alaska Natives in the legislature, five Democrats and one Republican (whose race remains in recount territory).

Elections are about ideas, tactics, and power. Yet the outcomes determine policy. What choices the Congress will make, how a state chooses to implement those policies, and who gets to decide. There will be a lot of action in state houses over the next four years as the Trump administration goes about shedding federal power. This shift could mean a state-based energy policy. Or a new block grant to pay for health care, even for people in the Indian health system.

There will be challenges ahead. But remember: Elections are never final. There is always another one ahead.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter: @TrahantReports

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