Winning the election of ideas

Cover photo: Rep. Paulette Jordan via Facebook


Rethinking tribal policy at the state level

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#NativeElect16 – Live Blogging

Trahant Reports


I’ll have a full report in a day or two. But the headline is that the Native candidates were running against a tide. Most of the support for Trump surfaced in rural areas, often the same districts as Native candidates.
That’s certainly what happened in the three House races in Washington, Montana, and North Dakota.
As it’s said in the song about Joe Hill.
What they forgot to kill
Went on to organize
Went on to organize


So what does a Trump presidency look like for Indian Country? This will be the first time that the Republicans will have all the levers of power: the Supreme Court (probably for twenty years or so); the House, the Senate; and the White House.

Biggest immediate impacts: The abrogation of international agreements on climate change, full scale energy production, and a fight over the Affordable Care Act (including the Indian Health Care Improvement Act).

Players: Ross Swimmer will be the go-to-guy for Indian Country.


#NativeElect16 Minnesota: Rep. Peggy Flanagan has a 63 to 36 point lead with 9 of 14 precincts reporting; Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein was leading by 30 points; Rep. Susan Allen was re-elected; Chilah Brown was trailing by a 2:1 margin in her state senate race. No numbers yet in for Jerry Loud, Jamie Becker-Finn, and Donna Bergstrom.


Montana has a lot of partial precincts reporting and Denise Juneau still trails Rep. Ryan Zinke by about 9 points.

One concern: She needs to split Yellowstone County, Billings area, and with the precincts reporting she is trailing 60 percent to 38 percent. Screenshot 2016-11-08 21.49.57.png


More than half the vote is now counted in North Dakota.
Chase Iron Eyes is at 22% of the vote; Rep. Kevin Cramer, 71% in the races for Insurance Commissioner and
Ruth Buffalo at 25 % and Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun at 20%.

For what it’s worth: All three of the Native candidates earned more votes than the Democrat NPL candidates for governor and U.S. Senate.

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Rep. Tom Cole and Rep. Markwayne Mullin easily won re-election in Oklahoma. They are currently the only two tribal members serving in Congress.
Cole had nearly 70% of the vote and Mullin just topped that percentage.
Mullin is chair of the Native Americans for Trump.


Denise Juneau trails Rep. Ryan Zinke in the first batch of ballots released by the Montana Secretary of State.

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Unofficial result from North Carolina. John Alexander opened up a lead over Laurel Deegan-Fricke with all precincts reporting. Final tally is 50% to 45.74%. #NativeElect16

Boost Post



Update from North Carolina. Laurel Deegan-Fricke has pulled within 2,000 votes with one precinct to go. I suspect on top of that there would also be contested ballots and other counts that usually don’t happen until after election day.

One interesting bit: Deegan-Fricke easily won the absentee ballots. Really demonstrates the power of early voting.


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Again. Early numbers. South Dakota reports first batch of votes for Public Utilities Commission and Henry Red Cloud is held under 20 percent of the vote.

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Sixth post:

The networks have already called North Dakota for Trump (no surprise) and the early returns are not encouraging for Chase IronEyes First batch of votes shows him just under 18 percent to Rep. Kevin Cramer’s 76.6%. It’s a small batch, 2 percent. In the same batch Ruth Buffalo and Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun also trail by similar margins. #NativeElect16


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Fifth post: Update from North Carolina, State Senate. #NativeElect16
Laurel Deegan-Fricke still trails by less than 5,000 votes with three precincts yet to report.
A look at the numbers really captures the state of politics in 2016: The blue precincts, where Deegan-Fricke wins, are overwhelming. And vice versa for the red precincts. (One blue is kind of even, but most are really one sided.)

Next up: Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota.


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Fourth post:

#NativeVote16 Laurel Deegan-Fricke trails by about 3,000 votes in a North Carolina Senate race. 77% of precincts have been counted, so there is a long way to go.

Third post: 

Coal is one of those issues that, I think, is completely mis-framed. Republicans blamed the Environmental Protection Administration and regulation on coal declines. But coal as a marketable resource is in decline globally (far beyond the EPA’s reach). Add to that the problems of safe, environmental transportation and it shows why the market has collapsed.

Today it was an issue on Native America Calling when Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage talked about coal and jobs. But no matter who wins, coal will continue its decline.

In China, for example, coal use dropped 3.7% last year and that was the second year in a row.

Coal was on the ballot in West Virginia — and his anti-EPA message carried the day.



Second post: Talk about spin. Another NBC exit poll says a majority of voters say Obamacare went too far.
But the numbers tell me something else.
Yes, 45 percent don’t like the law. But 31 percent says the law did not go far enough (single payer?) and 18 percent say it’s about right.


First post: 6:09 pm.

Reporting tonight from Studio 118 1/2 Updates on Twitter, FB and FB Live. Hashtag #NativeElect16

One of the issues that both Democrats and Republicans ignored in 2016 was climate change. Republicans pretend that it does not exist. And Democrats say, yes, it’s a tough problem, but refuse to propose the structural changes that will help the nation and the planet begin a transition away from fossil fuels.

So here are numbers from NBC on exit polls from Florida. By a huge margin voters are saying “do something.”

This is the Standing Rock vote, folks.


#NativeVote16 – Making history, showcasing so much remarkable talent

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!” (Campaign photo)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

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.

Denise Juneau, as NBC News pointed out Saturday, would be the first Native American woman ever elected to Congress. (From the state that elected the first woman to Congress.)

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!'”

This story of talent is repeated from coast to coast. It’s Tawna Sanchez in Oregon. It’s Laurel Deegan-Fricke in North Carolina. And it’s Red Dawn Foster in South Dakota. (The complete list is here.)

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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 JuneauTulsi GabbardKamala 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.

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

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please credit: Mark Trahant /