*** Updated to include new candidate, maps.
Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports
I have been avoiding politics. Last year I was consumed by dozens of races across the country, building data bases, checking names, and generally being enthusiastic. Now? Well, this year, I have been absorbed by the Republican plans to rewrite the Affordable Care Act, destroy Medicaid as we know it, and, as a by-catch, sabotage the Indian Health system.
Of course policy and politics are connected. The people we elect are the ones who make the decisions about our health care, our education, how much money the government spends and collects, or whether we’re at war or at peace. Imagine being a Native American politician in the Trump era. It would be an uphill climb to represent constituents as well as being a public advocate for Native people and community.
Labor Day is always the big weekend in politics. In an election year, it’s the date when campaigns really gear up, there is a crunch of about nine weeks until votes are counted. For the 2018 cycle, that marker is still more than a year away. Yet late summer is when candidates are recruited, a few take the plunge, and those who say yes, build campaign organizations and raise money.
There is a lot to report about American Indian and Alaska Native candidates.
Starting in Alaska where Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott are running for re-election. In 2014 Walker and Mallott ran a campaign that transcended party politics. Mallott, a Tlingit and former chief executive of Sealaska Corporation, had been the Democratic Party’s nominee for governor until he dropped out to join Walker. This was politics at its best. I remember being at several campaign events, including a couple panels I moderated, and was struck by the similarity of their messages (and more important, their tone) so coming together was good for the polis, a Greek word that means the ideal in a community.
Mallott told Juneau radio station KINY that the pair would again run as an independent team. “What ever we do, we’ll do together,” Mallott said. He said party labels do not come up in their governing plans because they’re more interested in solving problems. Walker and Mallott took office with the state facing an unprecedented fiscal crisis brought on by low oil prices and structural deficits. Mallott called it a slow rolling recession. “We need to put this behind us,” he said, “so Alaska can grow again.”
Walker and Mallott officially filed for re-election on August 21 as independent candidates.
This will be a tough race. Walker and Mallott have raised issues that are not exactly popular, such as reducing the state’s permanent dividend (per capita to you and me) as well as implementing new taxes to pay for government.
There are not that many independents in state governments (or the federal government, for that matter). So it will be interesting to see if Democrats again choose to align with Walker and Mallott. (Alaska’s House is also run by a partnership of Republicans and Democrats working together, while the Senate remains under Republican leadership.)
For their part, Republicans are operating as if the Democrats will field a candidate (one name tossed about is former Sen. Mark Begich). The state’s party chair, Tuckerman Babcock told KTOO television that “from our perspective, having two Democrats running is a good thing.”
Walker and Mallott have a track record. If nothing else (and there is a lot more) they can be proud of expanding health care access in Alaska through Medicaid expansion. This program opened up health insurance to at least 35,000 additional Alaskans and improved the funding stream for the Alaska Native health system. The uninsured rate in the state dropped from 18.9 percent to 11.7 percent. A success story all around.
One measure of that success: A group of doctors is promoting a ballot initiative to codify the Medicaid program in Alaska (protecting the program no matter who is governor).
Kelly Zunie is running for the Republican nomination for New Mexico’s lieutenant governor. She is a member of the Zuni Pueblo and served as Cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department for nearly three years.
Her campaign Facebook page said: “Zunie is committed to meeting the needs of New Mexico’s private sector business owners to improve capacity to expand and the workforce. Zunie will also focus on the safety of New Mexico’s children and families.”
On the Democratic side, Debra Haaland is running for New Mexico’s first congressional district. (Previous: Pueblo woman. Mom. Gourmet cook … candidate for Congress.) Haaland previously has been a Democratic nominee for Lt. Gov. and served as the state’s party chair. Now she’s running in a contested primary for the state’s most urban district (and only a little more than 3.5 percent Native American). She’s a member of the Laguna Pueblo.
The key to winning this race is building up enough financial resources and early ballot strength to win the primary. Haaland has already raised more than $150,000, including significant sums from Indian Country contributors. Joe Monahan’s New Mexico political blog put it this way: “Something a bit historic is happening in the early going in the Dem race for Congress. Large sums of money from Native America tribes and pueblos here and outside the state is starting to flow to Haaland, who would be the first Native American woman ever elected to the US House.”
And in Utah, Carol Surveyor is running for the House in that state’s second congressional district. Surveyor is Navajo and a political organizer, co-founder of Utah League of Native American Voters. Surveyor told Enviro News Utah that it’s about time a Native American woman served in Congress. “Women of color are often overlooked in their opinions, their views, their leadership, and so forth,” she said. “Native Americans have traditionally been overlooked and forgotten in this country, women in native communities are traditionally matriarchal. Yet, there have been many native women who have run for public office. In the past, there are native women who have run for federal office, but unsuccessfully. Again, I think this is because politics is still viewed as a men’s game. My remark about “it is time,” refers to changing the game, and what better way to change the entire game than by electing a Native woman? Doing so would be a shift in the way many people the world over see the U.S., how many people see U.S. politics in this country, and it would show how progressives in the U.S. recognize and understand the forgotten voices. I am a forgotten voice.”
The web site, Indianz.com, posted a story that said J.D. Colbert, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, is running for the 3rd Congressional District in Texas. “Voters there haven’t elected a Democrat there in 50 years but the banker and business leader is counting on a shift in demographics to send him to Washington, D.C. ‘America is in the crucible of seismic demographic transition. The impending death of the White majority and the rise of a more diverse New America is the fundamental cause of divided America and is the basis of the divisive cultural wars,’ said Colbert, who is also a descendant of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.”
Finally, there is an interesting twist in Oklahoma. Remember there are currently only two tribal members in the Congress, both Republicans. U.S. Representatives Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin. Cole is Chickasaw and Mullin is Cherokee. (Previous: Rancher, businessman, and yes, absolutely, a career politician.)
Now another Cherokee Nation tribal member, Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols is challenging Mullin. (This would be a first if both win primary contests: Tribal members on both sides of a congressional ballot.) Nichols is running as a Democrat.
Nichols told the Tahlequah Daily Press that he’s running because of the dysfunction in Washington. “I’m accustomed to operating in a nonpartisan environment where ideas and practical considerations are the focus of discussions,” he said. “As the mayor of a small town, you have to look your constituents in the eye every day. That’s kept me grounded and reminded me there are real people affected by every decision I make, to never lose sight of that, and to make certain I stay connected with them and never forget whom I work for. That isn’t a political party.”
Nichols is a political science instructor at Northeastern State University and has worked as an information technology officer for a tribe and a school district.
That’s it. We’re off and running. More politics ahead. Watch for the hashtag, #NativeVote18.
Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports
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