Agency Says Indian Health Should Not Be Exempt From Medicaid Work Rules Because They Are ‘Race-Based’
Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports
The Trump administration is supporting a major policy shift on Indian health programs which could result in a loss of millions of dollars and sabotage treaty rights.
A story in Politico Sunday raised the issue. It said “the Trump administration contends the tribes are a race rather than separate governments, and exempting them from Medicaid work rules — which have been approved in three states and are being sought by at least 10 others — would be illegal preferential treatment. ‘HHS believes that such an exemption would raise constitutional and federal civil rights law concerns,’ according to a review by administration lawyers,” Politico said.
The new policy on Medicaid work requirements “does not honor the duty of the federal government to uphold the government-to-government relationship and recognize the political status enshrined in the Constitution, treaties, federal statutes, and other federal laws, said Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. “Our political relationship is not based upon race.”
“The United States has a legal responsibility to provide health care to Native Americans,” Mary Smith, who was acting head of the Indian Health Service during the Obama administration and is a member of the Cherokee Nation, told Politico. “It’s the largest prepaid health system in the world — they’ve paid through land and massacres — and now you’re going to take away health care and add a work requirement?”
Medicaid has become a key funding stream for the Indian health system — especially in programs managed by tribes and non-profits. Medicaid is a state-federal partnership and public insurance. The Affordable Care Act expanded Medicaid eligibility, but the Supreme Court ruled that each state could decide whether or not to expand. Since the expansion of Medicaid some 237,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives in 19 states have become insured.
Officially Medicaid represents 13 percent of the Indian Health Service’s $6.1 billion budget (just under $800 million).
But even that number is misleading because it does not include money collected from third-party billing from tribal and non-profit organizations. In Alaska, for example, the entire Alaska Native health system is operated by tribes or tribal organizations and the state says 40 percent of its $1.8 billion Medicaid budget is spent on Alaska Native patients. That one state approaches the entire “budgeted” amount for Medicaid.
Other states report similar increases. Kaiser Family Foundation found that in Arizona, one tribally-operated health system reported that about half of visits were by patients covered by Medicaid in 2016. And, an Urban Indian Health Program, reported that its uninsured rate at one clinic fell from 85 percent before the Affordable Care Act to under 10 percent.
Those Medicaid (and all insurance) dollars are even more significant because by law they remain with local service units where the patient is treated (and the insurance is billed). In Alaska more than two-thirds of those dollars are spent on private sector doctors and hospitals through purchased care for Alaska Native patients. And, unlike IHS funds, Medicaid is an entitlement. So if a person is eligible, the money follows.
A recent report by Kaiser Health News looked at Census data and found that 52 percent of residents in New Mexico’s McKinley County have coverage through the Medicaid. That’s the highest rate among U.S. counties with at least 65,000 people. “The heavy concentration of Medicaid in this high-altitude desert is a result of two factors: the high poverty rate and the Indian Health Service’s relentless work to enroll patients in the program,” Kaiser reported. Most of McKinley County is located on the Navajo and Zuni reservations.
Kaiser Health News said Medicaid has opened up new opportunities for Native patients to “get more timely care, especially surgery and mental health services. It has been vital in combating high rates of obesity, teen birth, suicide and diabetes, according to local health officials.”
However the growth of Medicaid is resulting in unequal care for patients in the Indian health system. The benefits in some states, including those that expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, are more generous. Other states not only refused to expand Medicaid and have been adding new restrictions such as requiring “able-bodied” adults to have their Medicaid eligibility contingent on work.
But the Indian health system — the federal Indian Health Service and tribally and nonprofit operated programs — are in a special case because there is a 100 percent federal match for most services. So states set the rules, but do not have to pay the bill. (Medicaid is often the second largest single item in a state budget behind public schools.)
Medicaid is the largest health insurance program in America, insuring one in five adults, and many with complex and long-term chronic care needs. The Trump administration and many state legislatures controlled by Republicans see Medicaid as a welfare program. While most Democrats view it simply as a public health insurance program.
Work rules are particularly challenging for Indian Country. Unlike other Medicaid programs, patients in the Indian health system will still be eligible to receive basic care. So stricter rules will mean fewer people will sign up for Medicaid and the Indian Health Service — already significantly underfunded — will have to pick up the extra costs from existing appropriations. That will result in less money, and fewer healthcare services, across the board.
A letter from the Tribal Technical Advisory Group for Medicare and Medicaid said American Indians and Alaska Natives “are among the nation’s most vulnerable populations, and rely heavily on the IHS for health care. However, the IHS is currently funded at around 60 percent of need, and average per capita spending for IHS patients is only $3,688.” The latest per person cost for health care nationally is $10,348 (totalling $3.3 trillion, nearly 20 percent of the entire economy).
The tribal advisory group said it is “critically important” that there be a blanket exemption for IHS beneficiaries from the mandatory work requirements.
A report in September by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that the majority of American Indians and Alaska Natives on Medicaid already work, yet continue to face high rates of poverty. It said over three-quarters of American Indians and Alaska Natives are in working families, but that’s a gap of about 8 percent compared to other Americans (83 percent).
The Trump administration’s characterization of tribal health programs as “race-based” is particularly troubling to tribal leaders because it would reverse historical precedence.
A memo last month from the law firm of Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker said the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services “has ample legal authority to single out IHS beneficiaries for special treatment in administering the statutes under its jurisdiction if doing so is rationally related to its unique trust responsibility to Indians. Under familiar principles of Indian law, such actions are political in nature, and as a result do not constitute prohibited race based classifications. This principle has been recognized and repeatedly reaffirmed by the Supreme Court and every Circuit Court of Appeals that has considered it, and has been extended to the actions of Administrative Agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services even in the absence of a specific statute.”
Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a Shoshone-Bannock tribal citzen. On Twitter: @TrahantReports Cross posted on Indian Country Today.
(The National Congress of American Indians is the owner of Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.)
Congress has yet to reenact the Children’s Health Insurance Program and states will soon run out of funds to prop up the program. That will mean that thousands of American Indian and Alaska Native children will lose their health insurance. And, the result is the Indian Health Service will have to stretch its already thin dollars to try and cover the budget hole.
The Children’s Health Insurance Program expired Sept. 30. This federal program insures young people and pregnant women who make just enough money not to qualify for Medicaid (but can’t afford private insurance). The idea is to make sure that every child has the resources to see a doctor when they are ill.
It’s hard to break down precise numbers because agencies lump funds from the Children’s Health Insurance Program or CHIP into Medicaid data. But we do know that the law worked really well. We also know there are more than 216,000 children that have health insurance because of Medicaid and the CHIP. Indeed, Native American children rely on Medicaid and CHIP at much higher percentages than other population groups. A study by Georgetown reported that 54 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native children were enrolled in Medicaid or CHIP as compared to 39 percent of all children. “Even though much progress has been made in extending Medicaid coverage to American Indians and Alaska Natives, the uninsured rate for American Indian and Alaska Native children and families remain unacceptably high,” the report said.
Overall the uninsured rate among non-elderly American Indians and Alaska Natives fell by 7 percentage points from 24 percent to 17 percent, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
This is a big deal and here’s why: The Indian Health Service is a health care delivery operation that works best when insurance (third-party billing in government-speak) pays for the medical costs. Medicaid, CHIP, Medicare, and other third-party billing now accounts for 22 percent of the IHS’ $6.15 billion budget.
But if Children’s health is no longer funded (because Congress did not reauthorize the legislation) then the Indian Health Service will have to make up the difference. That means taking money away from other patients and programs. It will be a critical problem for clinics because by law dollars from third-party billing (or Medicaid and CHIP) remain local.
Alaska is the state most impacted by Congress’ failure to act because two-thirds of the children in the Native health system are covered by Medicaid or CHIP. Other states where there will be significant hits: Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, New Mexico, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and California.
The House of Representatives passed a CHIP reauthorization in early November. But that bill included a $6.35 billion budget cut to other health programs, including the Prevention and Public Health Fund, which provides money for vaccines, smoking cessation, and other initiatives to improve public health. The House would also ban lottery winners from being insured by Medicaid, tighten the timetable for people to sign up, and to change other rules.
It’s unlikely the Senate will agree. But the Senate is not moving quickly to pass its own legislation. The Senate is too busy working out tax cuts that will benefit large corporations and the very wealthy. (Previous post: What matters? Tax fight is about seven competing values.)
Across the country, some nine million low- and middle-income children rely on CHIP for health coverage. And, according to The Hill newspaper, States have asked the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for funding to hold them over in the interim, and the agency has awarded about $607 million in redistributed funds to states and U.S. territories. Tribes will also lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in CHIP-related grants.
Last month, Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, who chairs the Senate committee responsible, called CHIP a “top priority” that had bipartisan support. The committee passed the bill October 2. But it’s up to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, to bring the legislation to the floor for enactment. Then the House and Senate would have to iron out and agree on their differences before the bill can become law.
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.”
Native American representation in Congress was 0.37 percent before the election and today it’s the same, Rep. Tom Cole and Rep. Markwayne Mullin were easily re-elected to the House.
But Denise Juneau, Joe Pakotas and Chase Iron Eyes were all defeated by wide margins in Montana, Washington and North Dakota.
The tally of statewide office holders will drop, though. Denise Juneau will end her term as Montana’s Supt. of Public Instruction in January. Byron Mallot was not on the ballot and he has another two years as Lt. Gov. of Alaska. But Henry Red Cloud, Ruth Buffalo, and Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun lost their bid for offices in South Dakota and North Dakota.
Native Americans running for state legislatures did not fare better, except, I should point out there are some bright spots.
Rep. Paulette Jordan, a Democrat, won re-election in deep red Idaho. She posted on Facebook: “While it is bittersweet to win in such a large loss both local and national, we must remain hopeful and optimistic that our vision of equality and balance will soon be achieved. Until that day comes: onward!”
And Montana Native legislative candidates won 8 seats from both reservation and urban districts. Elected were Shane Morigeau to represent Missoula, Garrett Lankford in Great Falls, and Frank Smith, Carolyn Pease-Lopez, Susan Webber, Rae Peppers, Jonathan Windy Boy and the lone Republican, Jason Smith.
Four Native women won in Minnesota. State Representatives Susan Allen, Peggy Flanagan, Mary Kunesh-Podein were re-elected, and a new voice, Jamie Becker-Finn.
Rep.-elect Tawna Sanchez in Oregon and Kansas re-elected Rep. Ponke-We Victors.
Still, Indian Country lost some races with really talented people. But elections are not forever. So expect to hear more in the future from: Laurel Deegan-Fricke in North Carolina, Cesar Alvarez, Cheryl Ann Kary in North Dakota, Red Dawn Foster in South Dakota, Bryan Van Stippen in Wisconsin, and, Ronda Metcalf and Sharlaine LaClair from Washington.
There is no question in my mind that gender is on the ballot this election.
Hillary Clinton would be the first woman ever elected in U.S. history. While the Republican nominee for president finds new ways to show his contempt for women almost every time he opens his mouth. And that, I believe, will determine the result.
When you look the Native American candidates running for all offices across the country, it’s clear that women are making history. This will be a break-through year.
Juneau is the only Native American woman running for Congress but if you look back at the history of women who have tried, the list is significant. Just a few: Jeanne Givens in Idaho, Ada Deer in Wisconsin, Kalyn Free in Oklahoma, and Wenona Benally and Mary Kim Titla in Arizona’s First Congressional District. (The district with the highest percentage of Native voters.) You could add to that list two vice presidential nominees, Winona LaDuke and LaDonna Harris. Or the two Native American women running statewide in North Dakota, Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun and Ruth Buffalo.
Indeed, more than 37 percent of all the Native American candidates running this election are female. In Minnesota six of the seven candidates running for the Legislature are women. And three of the four Native candidates in Arizona.
Of course that number is not half, so there remains a long ways to go. But a little perspective from the data. Nationally women make up about 20 percent of Congress both in the House and in the Senate. And in state legislatures women make up 24.6 percent of those bodies, a percentage that Native American candidates could exceed.
And it’s not just the numbers: It’s the resumes, it’s the talent.
Jamescita Peshlakai (who is running unopposed in Arizona for the state senate) is Navajo and a Persian Gulf War veteran who served in the U.S. Army for eight years. She used the G.I. Bill to get her college education, eventually earning a master’s degree in history and educational psychology. She already has legislative experience, serving in the Arizona House.
On the same ballot in the same district, Benally is running again this time for the legislature and unopposed). “I am a Harvard Law School graduate. I also earned a master’s degree in Public Policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government and a Master’s of Law from the James E. Rogers College of Law,” Benally wrote on her Facebook page. She recently told the story about a meeting with Bernie Sanders. She wrote:”I thanked him for inspiring a new generation of young leaders – like me – who have picked up the torch and are seeking change at the local level. His response: ‘No, thank you!'”
Washington legislative candidate Sharlaine LaClair was recently featured on the cover of a national story from Refinery29: “35 Women Running For Office you should know about!”
The slide show included her picture and said: “Why you should know her: LaClair, a member of the Lummi Nation, would be one of four Native Americans in the Washington Legislature if elected.” Featured in that same slide show is Denise Juneau, Tulsi Gabbard, Kamala Harris, and Paula Hawks. Cool company.
I can’t imagine a more difficult year for women to run or, more important, raise critical issues. Donald Trump has sunk the national discourse, especially on issues of gender, to a new low. A poll last week by Pew Research found “substantial differences in the level of respect voters think Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have for different groups in American society, and some of the widest gaps are on women, blacks and Hispanics.”
Native Americans were not included in the Pew poll, but, I would argue we would show a similar gap. In Alaska, for example, Republican Rep. Charisse Millett, Inupiaq, wrote “Donald Trump’s character has been proven beyond question to be that of a bully, misogynist, and a sexual aggressor. His comments released recently are simply further proof that he is no leader – he is part of the problem.”
As I said: There is no question in my mind that gender is on this year’s ballot.
Over the years I have joked about Indian Country being included in the Electoral College. Each tribal nation should have a vote and a say about the next president of the United States. (Of course it would have to be a much larger college. But in a country of 323 million that would make a lot of sense). Plus it would be so cool to hear the reading of votes from tribal nations.
While that’s fun to think about, the way the 2016 election map is starting to take shape, and Native American voters could actually help deliver as many as 50 electoral votes out of the 538 total. That’s because six states with a significant Native population are also close enough where every vote could be the difference.
Those states on my list: Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina and Wisconsin. Let’s look at the numbers.
A look at the polls shows a tight race (again). The Real Clear Politics average of polls has a Hillary Clinton lead of 1.7 percent, 47.2 percent to 45.5 percent for Donald Trump. That shows that more Republicans sticking with Trump despite what would be disqualifications in any other election year. Paul Ryan’s statement captured that discomfort perfectly on Tuesday when he said, “I already voted for our nominee.” There is no name is needed in that sentence.
But in any election what matters is who votes.
According to the U.S. Election Project more than 28 million people have already done so. And, as I have written before, one number that I am interested in comes from the three states that break down returned ballots by gender. Women, so far, have cast 56 percent of the ballots in those states, up from 53 percent from four years ago. (African Americans, on the other hand, have turned in fewer ballots than when Barack Obama was a candidate.)
North Carolina has 15 electoral votes. The Census Bureau reports that 122,000 people consider themselves American Indian and 184,000 alone and in combination with other races.
The Elon University Poll shows North Carolina in a statistical tie. “Among likely voters, Clinton has 42 percent of the vote while Trump has 41.2 percent, with 8.7 percent saying they are still undecided in the race,” the poll showed.
The poll also showed that the gender gap is shrinking, with 55 percent of women voters planning to vote for Clinton, compared to 61 percent during the second Elon Poll nearly a month ago. Men continue to prefer Trump by a 56-44 split.
“North Carolina is still very much in play for both Trump and Clinton,” said Jason Husser, director of the Elon University Poll and assistant professor of political science. “The Old North State is continuing its tradition as a source of true toss-up electoral votes.”
One thing I like about the Elon Poll is that it publishes cross tabs. Most of the demographic breakdown was limited to white and black. But thirty-nine people in the poll identified themselves as “other,” at about 5.5 percent of those surveyed, but it wasn’t a big enough pool to get a sense of what the “other” is thinking.
Wisconsin polls have consistently showed a Clinton lead in the state. A recent one by Remington Research Group pegs Clinton at 46 percent, Trump at 42 percent, Gary Johnson at 4 percent, someone else at 3 percent, and 5 percent undecided. The Remington poll includes whites, African Americans, Hispanics, and the “other” in that poll is 4 percent.
Trump campaigned in Wisconsin this week and has plans to return again.
The Native vote program has been growing in the state. The Native Vote program, a partnership with Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters Institute and tribes in the state, saw turnout increase by one percent in 2012 from 2008. “But on the reservations we saw 2 percent, 6 percent, and even 14 percent increases,” the Native Vote program reported. “The Menominee reservation even reached an astounding 90 percent voter turnout, and the Lac du Flambeau and Menominee newspapers announced that they had record turnout levels.”
Polls in Nevada also reflect a dead-heat. (The average of polls show Trump with a one-half point lead.) Two Nevada tribes were successful in getting a federal court order for early voting locations and Friday nine more tribes asked for additional polling locations, according to the Reno Gazette Journal. The filing said some tribal members in remote communities had to drive 275 miles roundtrip to cast a ballot. Native Americans are about 1.6 percent of the state. But even a small percentage is important in a state that’s tied.
Arizona and New Mexico are on different paths. Both have a long tradition where the Native Vote has impacted elections.
The Secretary of State in New Mexico publishes a list of Native American precincts, detailing where the Native vote has the most numbers. But there remains a significant gap between registered voters and those who actually turnout. In 2014, some 66,000 people were registered to vote while only 26,000 cast ballots.
New Mexico, like Wisconsin, is a state where Clinton has lead for a long time, but that Trump is trying to make competitive. One challenge for the Republican is that the state’s former governor, Gary Johnson, is polling around 7 percent. Johnson was a Republican and is now the Libertarian Party nominee.
Even in New Mexico there are no polls that include Native American voters.
Arizona is a state that Democrats would like to flip, turning a reliable Republican state into a Democratic one. If that happens the coalition will include voters from tribal nations. Clinton already has a track record here. During the primary, Navajo voters picked Clinton and challenged the narrative of Indian Country’s support for Bernie Sanders by more than 17 points. Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye recently endorsed Clinton and the campaign recently said there are some 25 field organizers working to bring out Native voters.
“Tribal communities have swung a lot of elections in Arizona,” Charlie Galbraith, a member of Navajo Nation and a political adviser to both the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee said in Buzz Feed last week. “In an election that will be razor thin, getting out the vote in Navajo Nation could turn the state blue.”
And now, Alaska, the wild card.
A poll by Craciun Research showed a Clinton lead of four points, 47 to 43 percent, over Trump. That’s just one poll. And it defies the state’s recent history. Still. It makes you wonder.
Two key points: The Alaska Native vote and gender.
The poll identifies Alaska Native voters by geography. It cites “the unprecedented endorsement of Clinton by the Alaska Federation of Natives board. In the rural North and Northwest regions of the State, the poll shows Clinton is beating Trump by a margin of almost 5:1, 74 percent to 15 percent.
Second: “The gender gap is at levels not experienced in the recent past with women supporting Clinton by a margin of 17 percent.”
A shout out to Craciun Research. I love that the Alaska Native vote is measured. Would it be so across the land.
Do you ever wonder who will be the first Native American president? That answer might already be found on the ballots across the country. Where more Native Americans than ever are running for office.
Welcome to the Trahant Reports election special. I’m Mark Trahant.
You can find my blog at trahantreports.com or my work on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and, if you have an iPhone, on Apple News. Just look for Trahant Reports.
So often the stories reported about Indigenous people are defined by our challenges. These are the stories we know too well.
Instead we’re going to talk about our successes. We’ll explore how Native Americans are challenging the status quo by running for office and voting.
It’s sovereignty at the ballot box.
I’d like to report this is a record year for Native Americans running for elective office. But there’s a problem. No one has ever measured this before. We don’t have good data.
So is this a record year? Probably. Likely and why not?
Here’s the plan. I have broken this story into chapters. I’ve posted slides (they can be found on the Native Voice One website, many radio station web sites, or on my blog at trahantreports.com) Feel free to take a look at while you are listening, the visual story is one reason why I wanted to create chapters in this podcast.
Chapter one: Context
Let’s start with this number: 1.7 percent is the Census Bureau’s estimate of how many American Indians and Alaska Natives there are in this country. (There are a lot of ways you can measure the population of Native Americans. But I wanted one that would be useful because it’s found across many documents and that makes it easy to compare. It’s also the number used by the National Congress of American Indians.) So this is our baseline for discussion.
I should mention that one important election factor is that the population of American Indians and Alaska Natives is growing faster than the general population. By a wide margin. In fact, a third of all Native Americans are under the age of 18, compared to about a quarter of the total population. We are a young people. And our numbers are rising and in politics that’s everything.
And it’s not just American Indians and Alaska Natives who are changing the face of America. It’s a much larger diversity story.
When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 the population of the United States was 80 percent white. Today it’s about 63 percent white.
One demographic profile of voters by The National Journal shows how dramatically the country has changed since President Reagan’s landslide. He won with the support of 56 percent of white voters in 1980. But in 2012, when non-white voters accounted for 28 percent of the electorate, Mitt Romney took 59 percent of white voters—and lost the presidential race by 4 percentage points.
What’s striking about this election so far is that the Republican candidates did not even try to build a coalition with minority voters, young voters, or to fix the gender gap that’s been a problem for decades.
Millennials are now the largest age group – some 90 million people – and are more independent than previous generations.
The country’s diversity trend is just beginning. The U.S. Census reports that American Indians and Alaska Natives grew 1.4 percent since 2013, compared to about 0.5 percent for whites.
So if we are growing, what does that mean in a political context? Well, a couple of years ago, Malia Villegas, director of the National Congress of American Indians Policy Research Center, said population parity would mean at least two U.S. senators and seven members of the House of Representatives.
That’s the goal. How far away are we from that? Well it’s really the number two because there are only two, Representatives in the U.S. Congress, Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin, both are Republicans from Oklahoma.
Tom Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Tribe, maybe the most important members in the history of Congress.
When the issues involve tribes, and especially tribal sovereignty, Cole is a champion. But more than that advocacy, Cole argues the case for tribes from within the Republican caucus, and, even better, within the House Republican leadership. He is a measured, reasoned voice, not just for Indian Country, but for his ideas about what a conservative party should be. And that recognizes being inclusive.
Cole has history of being the consistent inside-the-party voice calling for more money for the Indian Health system. “We have a lot of people on both sides of the aisle who recognize the Indian country has been historically underfunded,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network in 2012. And, more important, he was the architect of building a coalition in the House to enact the Violence Against Women Act. He told WNYC radio that bill was “a very difficult issue because there were divisions within his own conference that prevented (then Speaker John Boehner) from getting to 218 votes.”
Yet Cole found enough Republicans and Democrats working together to pass the measure into law.
Rep. MarkWayne Mullin is in his second term. He is a member of the Cherokee Nation and he describes himself as a “rancher” and as a “businessman.” He took over his father’s plumbing business and expanded it several fold. His website lists a variety of conservative causes, ranging from too much foreign aid to repealing ObamaCare. Mullin does talk about tribal issues from time to time, but more often is a reliable vote for the conservative factions in the House of Representatives. He’s not the kind of representative to buck his party on, say, the Violence Against Women Act.
Chapter Two: The Presidency
My focus is on Native Americans who are running for office. But you cannot talk about an election project without at least talking about the presidency.
So here are a few thoughts.
Hillary Clinton is a story that’s told in hundreds of tweets from mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, and those who make up the larger American family. One of my favorite images of this campaign shows a young Native daughter watching Clinton walk on stage to accept the Democratic nomination.
That image says so much about what’s possible.
“When there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit,” Clinton said. It’s line we all know to be true.
The limitless sky reminded me about Wilma Mankiller. She was fond about telling a story about the first treaty negotiations between the Cherokee Tribe and the United States. One of the first questions: “Where are your women?”
Mankiller said it was common for Cherokee women to be included in ceremonies and negotiations and it was inconceivable that the United States would come to a negotiation alone. How can you negotiate anything with only half your people or half a way of thinking?
“Where are your women?” That question has a new meaning and it parallels that of Native Americans running for and winning offices across the country. First one person wins, then another, then another, and so on. “Where are your women?” is a question with different answers every election. In state legislatures, Congress, and soon, possibly, the White House. Where are your women? The answer would be, running governments.
WHEN IT COMES TO INDIAN COUNTRY, Donald Trump is running on one issue, energy. There is probably no greater divide between Republicans and Democrats than on energy and climate issues.
Donald Trump calls his energy policy, “America First,” a new energy revolution. “President Obama has done everything he can to get in the way of American energy,” Trump said. Too many regulations make it harder to profit.
But it’s not just costly regulations making profits harder to come by. It’s also market forces. And that’s the part of the story that doesn’t fit neatly into a political debate. Drive across North Dakota, as I have recently done , and you will be struck by the huge “man camps” that were built to temporarily house oil and gas workers. Many of those camps now sit empty or near empty because the jobs have dropped as fast as the price of oil. (It’s now about $50 a barrel, up from its lows, but significantly less than what oil producers predicted.
Trump supports the Dakota Access Pipeline — a project that news reports also say he has invested in.
A political history
Remember the entire premise of the U.S. political system is that tribes are governments. Tribes are political entities enshrined in the Constitution. Yet, and this is huge, tribes are the only such political entity that does not include even minimal, structural representation in Congress.
Even before the Constitution, the Continental Congress made it possible for residents of the territory of Ohio to have a voice.
On November 11, 1794, one James White was seated in the Third Congress as a Delegate. Congress hadn’t even set the rules yet for what that meant. White did end up in the House where his role was described, as quote “no more than an Envoy to Congress” because he could not vote.
Today there are six Delegates in Congress, representing Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C., Guam, U.S.Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
This is where Indian Country gets short-changed.
The Navajo Nation, a geographic, political, constitutional entity, is far larger and has more people than the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa or the Northern Mariana Islands.
The thing is Congress makes up its own rules for Delegates. It’s not a Constitutional act.
But full authority or not, at least Delegates are there. Seated. At the table. Their very presence would be a reminder about the unique political status of tribal governments.
There’s another interesting thread of history: And that’s about the office of Vice President. It may be worth at least a footnote in the long history of tribal, federal relations.
Charles Curtis was Herbert Hoover’s vice president and running mate. He had been the Senate Majority leader, representing Kansas. He was a member of the Kaw Tribe,and spoke Kanza, but instead of being an American hero, he’s most known for being the author of the General Allotment Act of 1887 – the Curtis Act – the very vehicle used to rob Native people of some 90 million acres of land.
Curtis is not alone in one respect. More American Indians have been candidates for the vice presidency than any other national office.
In the 2000 and 2004, Winona LaDuke, a member of Minnesota’s White Earth Chippewa Tribe, was on the presidential ballot as Ralph Nader’s running mate for the Green Party ticket. The Greens, she said, would “stand with others around this country as a catalyst for the creation of a new model of electoral politics.”
And before LaDuke, LaDonna Harris, a Commanche, and a founder of Americans for Indian Opportunity, was the vice presidential nominee of the Citizen’s Party in 1980. She ran with ecologist Barry Commoner in the year of Ronald Reagan’s landslide win.
Another historical thread, the motivation of some Native American candidates.
After World War II there was a disastrous policy called termination – the idea of ending the federal-treaty relationship with tribal governments – there were two distinct reasons. Some believed it was the next logical step for Indian progress, an economic integration. While others hated government and used termination as a method to shrink and attack government.
Utah Republican Senator Arthur Watkins was from the shrink-and-attack government camp. He was zealous about termination, badgering tribal witnesses when they came to Capitol Hill, refusing to even consider alternatives. He dismissed treaty obligations outright. Indians, he said, “want all the benefits of the things we have – highways, schools, hospitals, everything that civilization furnished – but they don’t want to pay their share of it.”
This was a real threat and Native American leaders responded by encouraging people to vote.
Joseph Garry was president of the National Congress of American Indians during this era. In a period of about 30 years, more than a hundred tribes were disbanded and tribal governments dissolved. The result was huge losses of land and natural resources in Oregon, Utah, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Texas.
Garry saw voting as the strongest weapon in this battle. So the chairman of the Coeur d’Alene tribe ran for the Idaho House of Representatives and was elected in 1957. Later, he won a seat in the the Idaho Senate, and in 1960 he sought the Democratic Party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate.
Idaho is a surprising birthplace for Garry’s legacy. Not many Native Americans live in Idaho, where they comprise roughly 1 percent of the population. But Garry’s successes there (even then) showed that someone from a tribal community could be a leader for all citizens of the state.
And it’s an active legacy. In 1975, Garry’s niece, Jeanne Givens, became the first Native woman elected to the Idaho House of Representatives. Like her uncle, she challenged the status quo with a bid for Congress in 1988. Givens lost, but four years ago another Coeur d’Alene tribal member, Paulette Jordan, ran for the Idaho House seat. She lost that attempt but two years later she won and that illustrates what may be the most important lesson in politics: You’ve got to run to win—sometimes more than once. Jordan describes Givens as a mentor who has taught her much about politics and both have earned the legacy of Joe Garry.
When a state like Idaho has a history of electing Native Americans to public office, you have to wonder, “Where else?” It’s almost been a story of success-by-stealth.
There is a win in Arizona, another in Kansas. And when you add them up, there are at least 73 American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians serving in 19 state legislatures.
Chapter 3: The People’s House
It’s easy to be optimistic about the prospects for American Indian and Alaska Native candidates in this election and beyond. Our numbers are growing, organizations are getting stronger, and, best of all, the most remarkable, talented people are giving elective office a shot.
So then I hear a voice inside: “Ahh, yes, but good people lose.” That’s true. But at the same time politics has a long arc that brings about change. It’s not one election. Or one candidate. It’s the constant push.
This year several talented people did just that. My former colleague at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Edgar Blatchford, ran for the Senate in Alaska. He ran with little money, promoting his candidacy largely via social media. He was the only Native American running for the U.S. Senate.
There are two areas of the country where it’s a question of “when” not “if” there will be Native representation in Congress. Alaska is one and Arizona is the second.
Victoria Steele ran for the House from southern Arizona and in northern Arizona, two Navajos, both Republicans, did campaign for that seat. State Senator Carlyle Begay and Shawn Redd.
Perhaps it’s an election or two away but one day … there will be Native American members of Congress who represent Arizona and Alaska.
Across the nation this year there are five Native American candidates for Congress. The two Republican incumbents, plus three challengers, Denise Juneau in Montana, Joe Pakootas in Washington, and Chase Iron Eyes in North Dakota.
Denise Juneau is Montana’s superintendent of public instruction. She’s a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikakara Tribes and grew up in Browning, Montana, in the Blackfeet Reservation. Juneau has a track record. She’s already won two statewide contests and knows what it takes to win a House seat. This is how U.S. politics often works: A candidate wins at the state level, does a good a job, and then she moves on to Congress. Juneau is running against Rep. Ryan Zinke. And, lately, there has been back and forth about who has been in Montana longer. Seriously.
Joe Pakootas would be the first former tribal leader ever elected to Congress.
Then in North Dakota, there is Chase Iron Eyes. He’s from Standing Rock — the center of attention for Indian Country (and for the planet). He’s an attorney. And he’s running for Congress from North Dakota out of necessity. “I take a look around and I see that our government is broken, and I feel responsible to do my part to try and fix this on behalf of North Dakota.”
In addition to Congress, more Native Americans than ever are running for state offices.
Let’s start in North Dakota. Where there is a lot of news right now.
The rush to build a new oil pipeline from the Bakken oil fields to Patoka, Illinois, was supposed to be routine. It was designed to avoid regulation, especially federal oversight, and get built without fanfare.
The Dakota Access Pipeline issue united Indian Country in a way that’s unprecedented.
But there’s another important chapter. No state in the history of the country has ever had three Native Americans running as major party nominees for statewide offices. To put that in perspective in recent years: Larry EchoHawk, Pawnee, ran for attorney general and won and governor of Idaho (he lost). And there have been a few others candidates, but my point is they’re scattered, one candidate is a big deal. So three Native American candidates, well that’s beyond extraordinary.
Iron Eyes as I mentioned is running for Congress. Buffalo for the state’s insurance commissioner. And, Hunte-Beaubrun is running for the Public Service Commission, the agency that would regulate pipelines. They are running on the North Dakota Democratic-NonPartisan League Party ticket.
Iron Eyes travels the state’s roadways pulling a cargo trailer with his campaign signs inside and on display outside. It’s probably his most visible campaign advertising. On a Saturday he made certain to park his vehicle where the University of North Dakota was playing football. More eyeballs. His fundraising is authentic grass roots. He posted on Facebook recently: “16,227 people have contributed an average of $3.80 to our campaign. Send $3.80 today!”
Three. Dollars. Eighty. That’s it. Think of what that means in a world where the wealthy write checks and buy access to politicians from both parties.
Ruth Buffalo may be the hardest working candidate in the history of North Dakota. Every time you open Facebook you see here knocking on doors, making telephone calls, or supporting the other candidates who are running. When people look at her resume, her background, she is clearly prepared for this job. As Greg Stites, a former counsel for the North Dakota Insurance Commission, wrote in The Grand Forks Herald: “Ruth Buffalo is the best candidate for the job, with an academic background essentially built for the role of insurance commissioner. She holds a master’s degree in public health from North Dakota State University. Her depth of knowledge of the health and insurance needs for our state are unmatched by her opponents. And her accomplishments do not end there.”
There is not only history, but irony, in Hunte-Beaubrun’s candidacy for the very agency that would regulate pipelines in North Dakota. She’s from Cannonball. The Dakota Access Pipeline dispute is her community; her water. Imagine how history would be different if on a regulatory agency there was one person who could object to a routine pipeline drawing.
The rules would be different “because we would have a seat at that table,” she said. And we would be able to help everyone understand culturally where we’re coming from.”
There could have been a solution without controversy.
This is the essence of why representation is so critical. We have so many states, counties, cities, where decisions have been made without even hearing a Native voice, let alone considering what’s said. That’s not democracy. And it will no longer work in a country where the demographics are changing this rapidly.
Yes, it’s historic that three Native Americans are running for statewide office. But you know what’s even cooler than that? This trend is just beginning. Even better, think about what history that could still be created. What if everyone in Indian Country, every ally, everyone who wants change, saw the merit of voting for a candidate who’s proud of contributions measured in pocket coins instead of the million-dollar access that we’ve come to accept as normal?
Next door, in South Dakota, a Lakota man is running for the state agency that regulates energy.
South Dakota Democrats nominated Henry Red Cloud as the party nominee for a spot on the state’s Public Utilities Commission. Red Cloud is the founder and owner of a renewable energy company based in Pine Ridge, Lakota Solar Enterprises. The company says. “We believe that reducing our dependence on fossil fuels is important. And on tribal lands, it is imperative. We hope you will join us in helping tribes achieve energy sovereignty.” He calls renewable energy “a new way to honor old ways.”
This is a great story to tell during an election campaign. Voters will be introduced to a creative and innovative energy path that’s creating real jobs now, employing people to build and install solar energy systems. Contrast this with the usual discourse about energy or even the nonsense about how climate change isn’t real.
Chapter Four: Shhh! Secret success
Who will be Indian Country’s Barack Obama? She’s probably already elected to a state office.
At least 73 American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians serve in 19 state legislatures. This is important. First, if you look at the body of work of these state senators and representatives, you’ll find them advocating for better service, more funding and improving relationships between tribal nations and state governments. Second, state offices are a source of talent for higher elective office, ranging from Congress to the White House. Remember it was only 1996 when Barack Obama was elected to the Illinois state Senate.
Montana best demonstrates the growing influence of Native Americans in politics.
Twenty years ago, Montana was pretty much like any state with a significant Native population. There were only one or two Native Americans serving in the legislature. Then a Native American candidate won in 1997. And again in 2003. And by 2007 Native Americans in Montana reached ten seats in the legislature; representing 6.6 percent of that body. Montana’s population is 7.4 percent Native American. Today there are 3 Native Americans in the Senate and 5 in the House, some 5.3 percent of the legislature.
To put the Montana percentages in national terms: If Congress were 5.3 percent Native American, there would be 5 U.S. Senators and 21 members of the House. Even if you adjust for population, the number of Native American members of Congress would have to more than double to equal the representation found in Montana.
Why is Montana the model? Hard work. Good candidates. And, when neccessary litigation to enforce the Voting Rights Act.
And there’s another reason why the Native American electoral experience in Montana is different.
The 2004 election of Brian Schweitzer as governor was a game changer. “Never before in Montana’s history has an entire Administration reached out to Indians to ensure they were acknowledged, respected, and most importantly, included,” During those eight years more than 250 “First Montanans” were appointed to boards, councils, commissions and state offices, including many firsts, such as appointments to the Fish and Wildlife commission, athletic commission, building code council and health-related boards. These offices made it clear to the citizens of Montana that Native Americans were a part of the body politic.
The track record of Native American legislators is also pretty good. According to Montana Budget and Policy Center, last year’s session produced a number of innovative laws, including Medicaid expansion (which is a financial boost to the Indian health system) as well as laws that will improve funding for tribal colleges, supporting tribal languages, and streamlining Indian business ventures. The record of Native American legislators was not 100 percent, but it’s likely that during the next session many of the ideas that failed to pass will be back on the agenda.
Oklahoma is the the largest state number of Native American legislators at 14. It’s also the only state with a balance between Democrats and Republicans (8 Democrats and 6 Republicans). To put that number in perspective: Nationally of the 70 elected Native Americans in state legislatures, 58 are Democrats and 12 are Republicans.
It’s also worth noting that tribes in Maine have three automatic delegates to the legislature. The offices are similar to delegates to Congress from the District of Columbia and U.S. Territories. The practice began in 1823 and Maine tribal delegates can serve on committees but cannot vote.
Across the country it’s clear that Native American representation before state governments significantly trails the population of American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians. For example there are 40 members serving in Alaska House and 20 in the state Senate. Yet only five Alaska Natives represented in the House — or 12.5 percent — and two in the Senate. Yet Alaska has the highest voting age population of Native Americans in the country, some 17 percent.
The growth of Native American voters — and elected officials — is only the beginning of a trend. We know our population is growing faster than the general population. And in many states there is already the number of voters required to build a winning coalition that includes Native communities.
Most of the action in the decade ahead will be at the state level. If you look at the list of some seventy elected state officials it’s clear that there is a wealth of talent such as Alaska’s Sam Kito III or South Dakota’s soon to be Senator Kevin Killer.
Look across the country and you will see why the Native Americans who now serve in state legislatures are the next generation of leaders in Congress — and even the White House.
So if you want to know who will be Indian Country’s Barack Obama, look to the states.
Her name will be Peggy, Paulette or Winona.
A final note: There are many people I want to thank for making Trahant Reports possible. Shyanne Beatty and Nola Moses at Native Voice One. It was Shyanne’s idea for my weekly commentary. Nola has been listening to one mic after another, helping me improve the sound for this program. Thank you to both.
I have also had financial support from the First People’s Fund. A special thank you to Jackie Tiller and Rebecca Adamson. Also thanks to Paul DeMain and the Native American Educational Technologies.
Jo Ann Kauffman and Kauffman and Associates was the first sponsor of Trahant Reports — so important, and so helpful, thank you.
And a special shout out to Cara and Ken Hall who gave me an unexpected “family” contribution. Thank you and that’s humbling.
And thank you to the people who listen to this podcast, the weekly commentary on Native Voice One, and the many people who read my reports on my page and across social media. I’m grateful.
We’re about to close the books on the 2016 election. But be assured I will keep writing about the policy choices ahead and what it means for Indian Country.
Until next time. This is Trahant Reports and I am Mark Trahant.
There is a hundred dollars-a-plate fundraiser planned on August 21 for Laurel Deegan-Fricke. She’s a member of the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation and running in a highly competitive seat in Raleigh, North Carolina. Two years ago that race was decided by less than a thousand votes out of some 82,000 cast.
If you missed the fundraiser. Don’t worry. It won’t be Deegan-Fricke’s last. The “cost” of a Senate seat in North Carolina averages $173,576, according to The National Institute on Money in State Politics. So if you’re not doing the math that means some 1,735 dinners. Then again Raleigh is not average. Four years ago, according to Open Secrets, candidates spent nearly $600,000 trying to win that Senate seat. Two years ago the winning candidate spent $470,000 and the losing candidate a whopping $1.1 million.
How much time do you have to spend raising money? “All day and night with less than 100 days to election,” answers Deegan-Fricke. She says she needs $500,000 to stay competitive.
Yet the issue of money is one reason why there are not more Native Americans serving in Congress, state legislatures and as governors. Of course the problem is that any “outside” candidate has an uphill climb in this aspect of representation. The fact is the system greatly favors those who are already in office. And money is one way to scare away potential challengers. In 2014 nearly a third of all Americans lived in states with an uncontested state senate race and more than forty percent in states with uncontested house races. (Previous: Hidden history of why Native Americans lose elections and what to do about it.)
There are solutions. One alternative is a system that includes full or partial public financing for campaigns. In an ideal setting, once a candidate meets the requirements to run, such as gathering signatures, and raising a limited amount, then state dollars are made available. A second system that’s used in many countries is that the political party funds its candidates. (In the U.S. it’s the opposite: You’re told by the party that you will have to raise “X” dollars before you will get funding. And usually the “X” is a big number.)
Arizona and Minnesota both have public financing options. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, “a candidate for state office in Arizona must raise $5 contributions from at least 200 people in order to qualify for the program. In return, the state provides the candidate with public money in an amount equal to the expenditure limit.” States cannot require candidates to participate in public financing and that limits the program’s effectiveness because some candidates can raise unlimited amounts. I should also mention that some of the most interesting experiments right now are occurring at the local level, such as Seattle’s new approach where voters are given vouchers to send to candidates.
Wenona Benally, Navajo, who’s running for the Arizona House in District 7, said, “qualifying as a ‘clean elections’ candidate and receiving public funds helps tremendously with paying for campaign activities. However, the process for qualifying as a CCEC candidate is very time-consuming & arduous.” She said the Secretary of State reviews every donor and if it cannot verify all of the data, then the form gets kicked out.
Minnesota candidates for the Senate must raise $3,000 and House candidates $1,500 in order to receive public funds for their campaign. Rep. Peggy Flanagan, White Earth Ojibwe, representing St. Louis Park and District 46, said she will receive $7,451 from public campaign financing. “I raised $50,000 for my race last year and I am trying to do the same this year,” she said. “I want to run a robust field campaign, but also want to make sure I can give money back to the party to take back the House.”
Successful fundraising is essential in any campaign.
As Rep. Flangan said: “I also think it’s important that candidates of color and Indigenous candidates are good fundraisers to demonstrate our power to folks in our caucus and in the state overall.”
Indeed that might be the most important point to remember. Yes, the challenges of fundraising are real, and a barrier to office for too many potential candidates. But if you look at the overall levels of representation, then state legislatures are where Native American candidates have been the most successful. So candidates are already raising what they need. That matters because it lays the groundwork for when more of those candidates choose to run for Congress. And “when” is the right word.