Paulette Jordan is running for governor of Idaho. This is a big deal in so many ways. First, there have been very few Native Americans who have ever run at that level (Alaska’s Byron Mallott, Idaho’s Larry EchoHawk, and Peggy Flanagan in Minnesota). Second, she’s the first Native woman who has the audacity to ask citizens to run their state. Yay! And third: She already knows how to win over conservative voters.
Two years ago when Democrats were losing across the country, Jordan captured her second term as a state representative, winning by 290 votes. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but she won her race during a Republican wave. She was the only Democrat to win any office in North Idaho.
Jordan announced her candidacy Thursday night in Moscow, Idaho. She is a native of Idaho and a citizen of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Idaho. (She served on the tribal council from 2009 to 2012.
“I grew up in a farming family and my grandparents showed me that cultivating the land was a continuation of our ancestral traditions of caring for homelands,” Jordan said. “Coeur d’Alene peoples have cared for Idaho homelands since time immemorial and Idahoans today practice the same combination of self-sufficiency and cooperation that my grandparents did. This reminds me of how connected we are to one another, it reminds me that Idaho is my family.”
Rep. Jordan is currently serving her second term in the Idaho House of Representatives. She is a member of the Idaho House Resources and Conservation Committee, State Affairs Committee, and the Energy, Environment & Technology Committee.She is also an appointed Idaho Representative to the Energy and Environment Committee of the Council of State Governments for the Western Region.
At her announcement, Jordan said, “when asked, what are you going to do next to improve this world? I am going to run for governor.”
Idaho once regularly elected Democrats to state office, including former Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus (who won office a record four times). These days it’s a super-majority Republican state. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Idaho is also state where the legendary National Congress of American Indians President Joe Garry served in the state senate and was a candidate for the U.S. Senate. It’s where Jeannie Givens served in the legislature and ran for the U.S. House of Representatives (likely the first Native woman to do so). Both Garry and Givens are also Couer d’Alene tribal members. It’s also a state that that sent Larry EchoHawk, a Pawnee, first to the legislature, and later elected Idaho’s state’s Attorney General. He did lose a bid for governor. But the point is that Jordon has an uphill climb. And she could win.
One telling story about Jordan is that she lost her first race for the legislature in 2012 by less than a hundred-fifty votes. She went back to work — and won two years later. And again four years later.
Jordan said there is even an advantage to being a member of the minority party. “The majority party can be insular and keeps their circle small, because they do not need to cooperate to advance their goals,” she said in her announcement news release. “But, members of the minority party must engage colleagues across the aisle, and develop meaningful comprehension of policies and positions held by others, so that the shared work of governing can succeed.” Jordan continued, “In my family, our circle can always get bigger, and that’s what I see for Idaho. A bigger circle is what achieving justice for all looks like.”
First, Congress tried to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act by rolling back that law plus the decades long public health insurance known as Medicaid. That effort failed in the Senate. Twice. And Congress hasn’t given up. There are all sorts of proposals floating that would try yet again through the budget or another mechanism.
Meanwhile the Trump administration is trying to unravel the Affordable Care Act using administrative authority. And, in the process, guaranteeing a network of insurance chaos. The President signed an executive order that eliminates payments to insurance companies to subsidize the cost of health insurance for families that cannot afford the full cost. Insurance companies will likely increase health insurance premiums — and by a lot — or get out of the individual health insurance market all together.
This policy change impacts American Indians and Alaska Natives who get their health insurance through the exchanges. Under the Affordable Care Act, many tribal members and Alaska Native shareholders quality for a “bronze plan” from exchanges at no cost. A silver plan could also have been purchased, depending on income, using subsidized rates.
The Kaiser Family Foundation figures that insurers will need to raise silver premiums between 15 and 21 percent on average to compensate for the loss of the subsidy payments.
It’s interesting: Ending the subsidy will cost consumers more in states that have not expanded Medicaid (such as Oklahoma) since there are a large number of marketplace enrollees in those states with incomes at 100-138 percent of poverty who qualify for the largest cost-sharing reductions.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the total payments were $7 billion in fiscal year 2017 and would rise to $10 billion in 2018 and $16 billion by 2027. The House of Representatives sued the Obama Administration to try and stop these insurance subsidies arguing that Congress never appropriated the money.
The CBO also said that ending the insurance subsidies will increase federal deficits by $6 billion in 2018, $21 billion in 2020, and $26 billion in 2026.
A second administrative order will change the way insurance companies write policies. The Affordable Care Act set out standards so that basic health care issues, including women’s reproductive health, would be covered. But the new rules will make it easier for people to buy limited policies that cost less, but cover fewer medical issues.
“Congressional Democrats broke the American healthcare system by forcing the Obamacare nightmare onto the American people. And it has been a nightmare,” the president said. “You look at what’s happening with the premiums and the increases of 100 percent and 120 percent, and even in one case, Alaska, over 200 percent. And now, every congressional Democrat has blocked the effort to save Americans from Obamacare, along with a very small, frankly, handful of Republicans — three. And we’re going to take care of that also because I believe we have the votes to do block grants at a little bit later time, and we’ll be able to do that.”
But the actions by the administration will only lower the cost of health insurance for one group of Americans, young, healthy ones. Insurance costs for nearly every other plan will sharply increase because of these actions. And especially at risk: Patients who are facing expensive medical treatments such as cancer.
Earlier in the week, the administration also rolled back Affordable Care Act coverage requirements for access to birth control. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation: “These new policies, effective immediately, also apply to private institutions of higher education that issue student health plans. The immediate impact of these regulations on the number of women who are eligible for contraceptive coverage is unknown, but the new regulations open the door for many more employers to withhold contraceptive coverage from their plans.”
The actions of the Trump administration mean two things: There will be chaos in the insurance markets as companies and individuals rebalance the value of those policies; and there will be litigation ahead because every one of these policy shifts will be challenged in court.
Senators say the darndest things … a few of their own words before the vote.Bottom line: no matter which version is the one to surface, there is no way to take $800 billion out of a health insurance system and make it stronger. Indian Country will suffer.
I have written past posts about why this is a terrible idea and how it will impact Indian Health System at trahantreports.com
Fair to say this budget will result in the early death of too many people
Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports
It’s easy to blame Donald J. Trump for a terrible budget. This is classic disruption; it’s designed to change the nature of government immediately. It’s also a destructive document that would result in great hardship across the nation and Indian Country. It’s not too strong to say that this plan would mean an early death for too many people.
So we ignore what’s proposed and turn to Congress for the real spending plan. The idea is that Congress will do something better. They must. Or face the consequences from voters in the 2018 elections. And it’s already clear that few Republicans are eager to reshape government (at least as dramatically as the president.) It’s unlikely that Congress will vote to eliminate agencies ranging from the Corporation for Public Broadcast to the Denali Commission. And the minus signs inked across budget lines will be less severe than requested.
But let’s be clear: The best outcome is probably another Continuing Resolution that patches together a temporary budget for a few months or possibly the entire year. Again. That’s become business as usual in Washington.
The ‘worse’ news: A failure to govern
That’s the good news. The bad news — strike that — make it the worse news is that neither political party has enough support to enact a thoughtful spending plan. The crisis is not a financial one (well, it is sort of) but represents a systemic failure to govern.
The best example of that problem is the debt ceiling. Basically it’s a law that allows the Secretary of Treasury to finance the debt that the United States already owes. The money has already been appropriated or authorized by Congress. It’s spent. So the only question is to pay the bill or not. Yet nearly every member of Congress (from the Tea Party to Sen. Barack Obama) bluster about the debt and threaten to withhold their vote. But the party in the White House cannot operate that way. Obama changed his tune as quickly as did Trump. It’s the nature of the job.
Congress isn’t run by two political parties; there are at least three major factions. (This is not unusual: Just before the Civil War the Republican Party was deeply divided by economic conservatives and the Radical Republicans who were organized against slavery.) Today’s Congress is composed of Republicans, the more strident House Freedom Caucus, and the Democrats.
It will take votes from two of the three factions to lift the debt ceiling and pass a budget in the House. This is important because the first “test” of a coalition was the vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with the American Health Care Act. The moderate Republicans sided with the House Freedom Caucus to pass a measure that would strip insurance coverage from 23 million Americans (according to the Congressional Budget Office). You’d think this would be nonsense politics for Republican moderates. Yet they still voted yes. The thing here is that this is the coalition to watch. So if Speaker Paul Ryan goes that route again it will mean a debt ceiling bill that results in even more spending cuts than the Trump budget. Imagine that.
The other alternative is just as unthinkable. It’s for Ryan to reach out to Democrats and build a majority coalition. This happens in state capitals all the time. But it’s considered near treason in politics and it would cost Ryan his job. Beyond that, the votes of the Democrats would come with a price, most likely a promise not to cut taxes on the wealthy.
Then whatever spending bill that emerges from the House must win 60 votes in the Senate. That’s not going to happen if the House Freedom Caucus wins the day. (Remember there are currently 52 Republicans, 46 Democrats and 2 independents in the Senate).
This is real juggling. Debt. Budget. And health care. And the Juggler-in-Chief doesn’t even like balls in the air. He tweeted last month: “Our Country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess!”
The same division in Congress over the debt ceiling (or health care) will play out on the budget. The House Freedom Caucus essentially agrees with the president’s budget. If there’s any reluctance … it’s that the spending cuts are not deep enough. The argue that the federal budget must be balanced in a decade and it will take painful cuts to reach that goal. (So the other Republicans, such as Rep. Tom Cole, will need to find votes for their moderate course from Democrats to reach a legislative majority).
The tension over national spending priorities, historically, has impacted federal Indian policy before.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt initially sharply cut federal Indian programs as part of an austerity drive.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s spending by the Bureau of Indian Affairs doubled from 1928 to 1932 (following the publication of the Meriam Report about the failure of federal programs and declining health, education and just about social indicator for Native Americans. “Several past policies adopted by the government in dealing with the Indians have been of a type which, if long continued, would tend to pauperize any race,” the report said, calling the government’s efforts “ineffective.” But Hoover’s 1933 budget reversed that progress and cut the Bureau of Indian Affairs budget by 15 percent, dropping from $25.6 million to $22.1 million. Then a year later, in 1934, dropped another 13 percent to $18.7 million.
But it was Congress — not the president — that was stingy. But at a public hearing in 1938 tribal leaders from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan complained about the “resistance of the government itself against any increased appropriations.”
However after the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934 spending did pick up and budgets increased.
After World War II the government again sharply cut spending in Indian Country. The 1948 budget declined by 9 percent, but that turned out to be a one-time hit. A year later the budget increased by more than 50 percent, to $62.1 million.
The figures were similar after President Richard Nixon announced the new policy of self-determination without termination on July 8, 1970. Nixon said, “we must begin to act on the basis of what the Indians themselves have long been telling us. The time has come to break decisively with the past and to create the conditions for a new era in which the Indian future is determined by Indian acts and Indian decisions.”
And the BIA’s budget reflected that idea. The budget increased by 18.5 percent in 1971, another 19 percent in 1972, and 23 percent in 1973.
But Nixon, like many Republicans, separates federal spending on the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service from other programs that benefits Native people. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs such as the Office of Economic Opportunity opened up new channels for tribal innovation. For the first time tribal leaders were managing significant budgets without the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The agency’s director wrote Congress in 1974 that OEO was ineffective and an “old approach” that did not serve the poor.
This is a pattern that continues today. Many mainstream Republicans are supportive of appropriations for the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the Indian Health Service, but less so for other general programs that benefit Indian Country, such as the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (signed into law by Nixon but ended by Ronald Reagan.)
A twist here: My first professional job as editor of The Sho-Ban News was funded by CETA in 1976. Tribes could use the money to create jobs — even at a tribal newspaper. And did so.
I had moved to Washington, D.C., before Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 and he, like Trump, promised sharp cuts across the federal government. One plan was floated that would cut social programs by a third (shifting some of the money to states as block grants).
But Congress was on the other side of this equation and mostly ignored the president’s requests.
Yvette Joseph, Colville, who was working for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, compared the budget on Indian programs from 1968-1988 to similar government programs and found significant underfunding. She wrote: “Gwen Ifil did a story on my research when she worked for the Washington Post. It made it on the front page of the newspaper and was the impetus for Senator Dan Inouye seeking a billion dollar increase to the Indian Budget because we could show how significantly, the federal Indian budget had been been reduced under Ronald Reagan’s zero-sum budget policies. That year, we did not reach our goal, but were in fact able to increase the American Indian / Alaska Native budget by $750 million in FY 1989. It was amazing to be a part of this work.”
Obama is the exception to the rule
The Obama era is another exception, and on the upside. As former Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn wrote in Indian Country Today: “In his first term, Obama increased the Indian Health Service budget by more than $800 million and steadily increased IHS funding by more than $1.2 billion, reaching $4.8 billion in total. Obama’s second term began inauspiciously with sequestration imposed by Congress in 2013, but the Indian Affairs budget at Interior for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education nevertheless increased from approximately $2.3 billion to $2.8 billion before Obama left office, an increase of a half-billion dollars. These increases significantly outpaced inflation and produced real and significant gains for Indian country.”
Beyond that top-line there was another potentially significant action that’s being debated again: The Affordable Care Act. This law opened a door for the full-funding of the Indian Health Service because it recognized that health care delivery and insurance are not the same thing. So if more American Indians and Alaska Nations could bring insurance to their federal, tribal, or not-for-profit clinic, it could add significant resources to the entire system. It did this by expanding Medicaid, requiring tribal employees to have insurance, and by setting up a free insurance plan under the ACA. I think a lot more could have been done to promote this idea, but it’s all at risk now anyway. But it’s important to note that Medicaid works — especially in Indian Country. (I will be writing more about that next week as health care debate moves to the Senate). More than half of our children are now covered by that public insurance. And we still have thousands of people who are eligible but who have not yet signed up.
Medicaid is an entitlement. That is different from appropriations because Congress does not have to act for the money to be there. (Which is exactly why the Republicans want it to go away by changing the law.) Medicaid was the most successful part of the Affordable Care Act, both in Indian Country, and among the general population. Yet the House plan would cut spending by $834 billion over ten years and shift more of the cost of public health insurance to the states (leaving huge questions about where American Indian and Alaska Natives fit in).
Ok. Stay with me here. This will be complicated. Much of the budget cuts — including those that would impact Indian Country — are taken from the smallest part of the budget, domestic discretionary. All safety net programs (except for health and social security) total about 10 percent of the budget. The big bucks are found at Social Security (33 percent); Medicare, Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program, and marketplace subsidies together total about 28 percent of the budget. Defense is 16 percent of the budget and Veterans programs at about 4 percent. And interest on the debt is 7 percent (thanks to low interest rates). But expect that category to grow as interest rates increase.
Domestic spending (except for health) has been declining since 2010. Depending on the final numbers in Trump’s budget, it’s likely that spending will drop to less than what was spent on 1962 on such programs. Before the Great Society. This is the part of the budget that includes Indian Country programs.
The point here is that the Congress could zero out domestic spending and there still would be a deficit.
The bigger problem is demographic. Two trends to consider. First the sheer size of the Baby Boom generation. And, second, humans are living longer than ever before. As Pew Research points out “about 10,000 Baby Boomers are retiring every single day, many of them not as well prepared financially as they’d hoped. The graying of our population will put stresses on our social safety net and present our elected leaders with a daunting challenge: how to keep faith with the old without bankrupting the young.”
Medicaid is a great example of this divide. Most of the news stories (including mine) focus on the health care aspects of this great program. Yet two-thirds of Medicaid — nearly $400 billion — is spent on the elderly and the disabled. About 60 percent of nursing home residents are supported by Medicaid and it’s the only program for seniors and for people with disabilities that pays for long-term care. Our discourse and the debate seems to ignore that.
Then our elders in Congress aren’t any better than those of us who write. Consider the illogic of the House Republican budget: It protects Social Security but it could wipe out funding for the older Americans who live in nursing homes. That same budget proposal cuts Medicaid for the poor both adults and children, but protects Medicare for those 65 years and older.
So who, exactly, are the constituents? (The only answer that is consistent: Tax cuts for the wealthy. That’s the point of the GOP health care plan.)
Also from Pew: “Today’s Millennials – well-educated, tech savvy, and underemployed – are at risk of becoming the first generation in American history to have a lower standard of living than their parents.” (It’s worth noting that young people in the United Kingdom turned out in record numbers and one of their top concerns was “austerity.”)
To be fair, Democrats haven’t come to grips with the cost side of this equation. There are just not enough taxes to pay for the growth of Medicare and Medicaid unless there is also a significant restructuring of the health care system. Still. The Affordable Care Act was just a start. A baby step at that. Get this: The Indian Health system is more in line with a health care system should cost than what is spent by the rest of the country. The gap that we so often complain about must be the country’s future. (As a reminder: According to the National Congress of American Indians, In 2014, the IHS per capita expenditures for patient health services were just $3,107, compared to $8,097 per person for health care spending nationally.)
So, yes, eventually, that means a single payer system of some kind. Sooner would be better than later. There is no other way to make the budget work.
Neither the Congress nor the White House is ready to take on these big issues. It’s much easier to cut smaller programs that matter to people, again, like those that serve Indian Country, and think the task is complete. It’s not.
So while it’s easy to blame the president for a terrible budget. The problem is much worse. And the solutions remain distant. The government is failing.
One election will not erase what is Donald J. Trump. Most of his voters see him as the antidote to business as usual. He’s shaking thing up (even if there is disagreement on specific issues). Destroying health care? Yes. So what. At least something new will surface.
Montana voters, it would seem, have a lot more at stake than most. This is a state where Medicaid expansion is working well. That very idea will be repealed in the Republican plan. So this election is a big deal.
Except voting is soooo hard. Especially when it’s a special election and no one is running for president.
Some numbers: Denise Juneau lost that same congressional district in November earning 201,758 votes to Ryan Zinke’s 280,472.
On Thursday Greg Gianforte won with 50.2 percent of the vote and only 189,240. In November 74.44 percent of the electorate showed up. Thursday night it was 54.4 percent.
Glacier County is a case in point. This is where the Blackfeet Nation votes. Juneau won the county by more than two-to-one over Zinke. In November more than 5,000 people voted. Last night: About 2,400.
So Democrats may be soothed by the fact that Gianforte lost nearly 7 points from Zinke’s win in November. The idea being that Democrats are picking up strength in a pro-Trump state. Matthew Yglesias wrote as much for Vox. That geography determines so much of the Congress and that turns into a Republican advantage. But, “for prognostication purposes you don’t just want to know who wins or loses a special election — you want to know the margin,” he writes. “To win by only seven in Montana, a state that Trump won by 20 points, is a clear sign that seats Trump won by four or five points or more aren’t truly safe.”
True enough. But it really will depend on who shows up at the polls in 2018.
Yes this was a special election. Yes the rules were confusing (changed along the way) about where to vote and how.
But all of that is just is a call to do better. We need to figure out how to get more people engaged. (Again.)
To me the real loss in Montana is that in an era when so much is at stake, 321,000 voters passed. They voted that voting is not all that important. — Mark Trahant
Remember this: There is always another election. And the 2018 congressional elections already promise to be extraordinary.
Let’s look at the landscape so far. Last week voters in Kansas surprised Republicans by barely winning a district that’s supposed to be safe. President Donald J. Trump tweeted: “Great win in Kansas last night for Ron Estes, easily winning the Congressional race against the Dems, who spent heavily & predicted victory!” And, indeed, there was a late surge that had many Democrats thinking victory. But Kansas is a deep red state. The district was represented by Mike Pompeo, who’s now the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who won by a margin of 30 points. Trump’s margin in the same district was 27 points. And Tuesday? Estes won the district by less than seven percentage points.
The Washington Post points out that special elections are complicated. There are a lot of factors at work beyond voters view of the White House. “But a sharp shift to the left in even deep-red parts of the country has obvious implications for the GOP that this experiment simply lays bare: the potential for an electoral disaster,” the Post said.
The shift from a House managed by Paul Ryan to one led by Nancy Pelosi would have huge implications for the Trump administration — and certainly for federal-tribal relations and programs.
Was Kansas the beginning of something bigger? Look for more answers to emerge in Georgia this week and Montana in May.
Tuesday voters in suburban Atlanta will weigh in. That special election to replace Tom Price (the Health and Human Services Secretary) is a “blanket primary” meaning that all candidates run on the same ballot regardless of party. Then the top two positions — unless one wins 50 percent vote — will face each other again. A number of Republicans are splitting the conservative vote. The Democrat in the race is Jon Ossoff and he has been leading in polls from the low- to mid-40s. Enough to win this round, but not enough to win the seat. Yet. Or maybe.
At this point you can boil this race down to one question: Who will show up? If more Democrats than normal show up (by about nine points) they could win this seat on Tuesday. That’s still possible in June but more difficult in a one-on-one race.
Indian Country’s first judgement of the Trump administration comes in Montana on May 25. Montana voters will pick a replacement for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Zinke defeated Denise Juneau to win re-election. Now the race is between a singing cowboy, Rob Quist, and a wealthy entrepreneur, Greg Gianforte, who lost the November race for governor.
But that’s only the headline race. What makes the Montana special election more interesting is that the Libertarian Party is also on the ballot, Mark Wicks, a rancher and writer from Inverness. At the same time: Other party candidates, including the Green Party and independents, did not get signatures to make the ballot.
So this will be a three-way race. Libertarians are more popular in Montana than any other state. (Indeed: I think one of the challenges for Juneau’s historic bid for Congress was that the Libertarians did not engage in a serious campaign. In the 2012 Senate race, Libertarian Mike Cox picked up nearly 7 percent of the vote in the race between Democrat Jon Tester and Republican Denny Rehberg.)
One important issue for Indian Country has yet to be resolved: The election process itself. Many county clerks and voting advocates have argued the special election is the ideal test for a vote-by-mail election (saving the state hundreds of thousands of dollars). However many in the Legislature argued that would give Democrats an advantage. The bill was killed. But Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock used an “amendatory veto” to revive the legislation. The Montana Legislature has not yet taken up that legislation even as county clerks move forward without a plan for a general mail ballot. I would love to see a major experiment with mail balloting for tribal communities. There is good data from Washington and Oregon that shows how effective mail ballots can be as a way to increase voter participation.
Back to the big picture. How would the Trump administration change in a world where Democrats control Congress? We actually might see a hint of that soon. The federal government must pass a new spending bill by the end of this month and it will likely be a coalition of Democrats working with Republicans to pass the measure. That means there will be funding for the Affordable Care Act, Planned Parenthood, and other programs supported by Democrats. The Republican Congress has the same problem on a spending bill as it did in the health care debate; there are not enough votes to pass a conservative alternative.
And in the House Democrats are well-positioned by history. Remember the president’s party nearly always loses seats in the first election after winning the White House. In 2010 after Barack Obama’s historic election, his party lost 63 seats in the House and 6 seats in the Senate. And according to Gallup polling, since 1946, when presidents are above 50 percent approval, their party loses an average of 14 House seats compared with an average loss of 36 seats when presidents are below that mark. And President Trump remains far below that mark.
It would be interesting to see a strong Alaska Native candidate surface in Alaska against Rep. Don Young. Young was lucky that the health care bill failed when it did because he did not need to take a vote. He would have had to choose between his party and his state (Medicaid expansion works in Alaska and the House bill would have cost Alaskans more per person than any other state). He still may have to make that choice.
Ideally I would like to see younger candidates from Indian Country. Young people who could build innovative, digital campaigns instead of relying on what’s been done in the past in terms of fundraising and advertising.
This is why the special elections right are so important. Because win or lose in Kansas, Georgia, and Montana, it shows that the House is not cemented to Republican leadership. The 2018 election cycle will be very different than the one that moved Trump into the White House. And all it takes is for a few potential candidates to see the possible … and to think, “I can do that.”
Former Montana State Sen. Carol Juneau once said that she considered state office because that’s where she could make a difference. (She is a member of the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Tribe but was living in the Blackfeet Nation). The year was 1998. She was first appointed to the legislature to replace a man who left office to take up a seat on the Blackfeet Tribal Council and then she became one of two Native American members of the Montana House of Representatives. In February of 1999 she made the case to the House Democratic Caucus that Montana’s American Indians ought to have better representation, because tribal people “are citizens of the state of Montana, the same as any other citizens. I’d like to see that Indian people and Indian tribes in Montana aren’t left outside of everything.”
Today Native Montanans are not left out.
The state has the most Native Americans elected as legislators in the country, three members of the Senate and six members of the House. More than that: Montana has elected more women than any other state: Four of the nine legislators.
And though she is not currently in office, Denise Juneau (Carol’s daughter) was the only Native American woman to ever win a state constitutional office, she served two terms as the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, as well as a congressional candidate.
The Montana story has a national application, too. A higher percentage of Native American women serve in state legislatures than do women nationally.
Women make up about 25 percent of state legislatures. But a little more than 40 percent of all American Indian and Alaska Native legislators are female. The numbers break down this way: There are at least 67 Native American legislators out of 7,383 seats in 50 states or nearly one percent. (If you think that’s bad: Congress only has Native representation pegged at one-third of one percent.) Of those 67 seats, at least 25 of them are held by Native American women. So another way to look at the data: There are 1,800 legislative seats held by women; that works out to a Native representation of 1.4 percent.
There is still a long way to go to reach parity with the population, but it’s much better than just about any other category in the body politic. For example: A recent report by the Bureau of Indian Affairs shows more than 570 elected tribal leaders and, in that group, just under 25 percent are women.
The Native delegation in Minnesota is eighty percent female; its own caucus. (You could even argue that women are 100 percent of the delegation because the other tribal member in the legislature, Republican Rep. Steve Green, is White Earth Ojibwe, but he rarely champions or mentions tribal issues.)
A recent article in the Minnesota Post was headlined, “Something new for the Minnesota Legislature: A caucus of first Minnesotans.” Rep. Susan Allen, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, was first elected in a special election. “Before Allen was elected in 2012, only nine legislators in state history who self-identified as American Indian served in the Legislature — all men — and most of them were elected back when Minnesota was still considered a territory,” the Post said.
Allen told the Post: “You can be a part of an institution that is predominantly white and not have to lose your identity. I can be here without having to lose my identity to do it, and previous generations, I don’t think they had that.”
The Post explained several reasons why it’s so important for a legislature to hear from Native American legislators and for those elected representatives to keep an eye out for bills that impact the Native community.
One anecdote in particular was powerful. The Post said Rep. Mary Kunesh-Poden, a Standing Rock descendent, was giving American Indian students a tour of the Capitol. She could see they were overwhelmed. “I said, come back again and again and bring other Natives to the Capitol so that you’re not nervous, so that you’re not intimidated, so that some day you’ll be sitting in this office doing the work that we’re doing,” she said in the Post. “You could almost see the light bulb go off in their head: I could do this?”
Arizona is another state where most of the Native delegation — three out of four — are women. This fits Arizona. Its legislature is third in the nation for the highest percentage of women at nearly 40 percent.
New Mexico is the only state where the male-female balance is 50/50. And five states, Idaho, Kansas, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming, have only a woman representing Native Americans in the legislature. Conversely, Colorado, North Carolina, and North Dakota have only one Native American man serving in the legislature. Alaska (88 percent) and Oklahoma (86 percent) are primarily represented by men. South Dakota has three American Indian men in the legislature and no women.
Idaho’s Rep. Paulette Jordan, Couer d’Alene, is not only the only Native American in the legislature, she’s the only Democrat elected north of Boise. She told the Spokane Spokesman Review: “How can we continue to fight for balance in the state, with the overwhelming odds?That’s part of the beauty of our connection to our ancestors. We know that they’re always walking with us, guiding us and helping us in this lifetime … the fact that we’re still here – we still have the beauty, the inner identity, our connection to everything, to the land, to the earth itself, to our relatives both tribal and non-tribal alike.”
I don’t have the total numbers for Native Americans elected at the city and county level. Yet. (Early drafts of spreadsheets are here and here. Please do let me know who should be on these lists.)
But this much is clear: Debora Juarez, Blackfeet, currently represents more citizens than any Native woman in America (more than 90,000 people live in her North Seattle district). She was elected to Seattle’s City Council in November of 2015. In an interview with the Tacoma Art Museum she talked about her idea about the role of women: “While men were in charge of external power, women had interior, spiritual, and domestic power. They were the centers of the community.” That’s exactly how she’s approached her job on the council. She’s argued for community services from sidewalks to child car. On Juarez’ blog she reports: “In this budget I advocated for and secured $4.4 million in targeted investments in our community including improvements in human services, construction of sidewalks, and neighborhood planning initiatives. Ultimately, I achieved a 94% success rate for my specific District 5 budget priorities.”
Denise Juneau, of course, is the only Native American woman to hold statewide office (twice). She actually earned thousands of more votes from Montanans than did Barack Obama in 2012. (Previously: Denise Juneau’s eight years of promise.) She had a remarkable run even though last year fell short of being the first Native woman to ever win a seat in Congress.
In addition to Juneau, at least seven Native American women have run for Congress starting in 1988. Jeanne Givens, a Couer d’Alene tribal member in Idaho was the first. Then Ada Deer, Menominee, in Wisconsin, Kalyn Free, Choctaw, in Oklahoma, and Diane Benson, Tlingit, in Alaska, Three Native women have run in Arizona: Mary Kim Titla, White Mountain Apache, Arizona Rep. Wenona Benally, Navajo, and Victoria Steele, Seneca.
It’s so long past the time to erase that phrase, “ever” or for that matter, “the first” when it comes to Native women in office. And I suspect the 2018 elections will be a remarkable opportunity for more Native Americans to win office. It will be a referendum on President Donald J. Trump and his policies.
It’s also worth noting that Native American women have run for the vice presidency three times.
LaDonna Harris, Comanche, was on the ticket with Barry Commoner for the Citizen Party in 1980 (the year of Ronald Reagan’s landslide). This was Bernie Sanders before Bernie Sanders. The party highlighted the structural limits of the Democratic Party and blamed corporate America for the excess. The antidote was people power.
What’s interesting about the campaign now is that Commoner and Harris focused on environmental issues (long before the words global warming or climate change were in public discourse). Get this: The Citizens Party platform cited the role of science in managing complex environmental challenges.
“As a Comanche woman fighter, I’m proud to be a part of this party,” Harris said. “The traditions of my people have always held to the unity of the oppressed. That is why I want to show that we care about the problems of Chicanos, the Blacks, women, the elderly and the poor.”
Winona LaDuke, White Earth Ojibwe, joined Ralph Nader on the Green Party Ticket in 2000 and again in 2004. When LaDuke announced her candidacy she was asked whether a Native woman from rural Minnesota should even be considered? “I would argue yes,” she said. “In fact, I would question the inverse. Can men of privilege … who do not feel the impact of policies on forests, children or their ability to breast-feed children … actually have the compassion to make policy that is reflective of the interests of others? At this point, I think not.”