Let’s say elections are about two things: Ideas and representation. Candidates carry ideas to voters (either directly or through the flag they fly, waving Republican, Democrat, Independent, or Green solutions). Representation, on the other hand, is the essential element for any nation that claims democracy. No country can be a representative democracy if too many of its citizens do not have a say in the outcome.
American Indian and Alaska Natives are roughly two percent of the population. Yet Congress currently has only two Native Americans, Reps. Tom Cole, Chickasaw, and Markwayne Mullin, Cherokee. Both Republicans are on the ballot this week.
If you are keeping score, the total of two representatives in a body of 435 in the House and another 100 in the Senate equals 0.3738317757009346 percent. Just a bit more than one third of one percent and far less than two percent. But even that number is misleading because most Native Americans nationally vote for Democrats (and by a wide margin). So that effective representation is near zero (at least for Natives who are Democrats. It’s the Native Republicans who are represented).
That’s why a primary in Oklahoma this week is so extraordinary. It’s historic because there are three tribal members running in Democratic and Republican primaries in the Oklahoma 2nd congressional district. For the Democrats, Jason Nichols and Elijah McIntosh. Nichols, Cherokee, is the mayor of Tahlequah. McIntosh, Muscogee, as the Secretary of the Nation and Commerce.
Oklahoma’s 2nd congressional district has one of the highest percentages of Native American voters in the country at just over 17 percent.
On the Republican side: Rep. Mullin is running for his fourth term. He has challenges from three in his own party. Mullin is already one of the most conservative members of Congress, but these inside challenges are primarily because when Mullin first ran for the office he said he would only serve three terms. Based on that issue, former Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn is campaigning for Jarrin Jackson in the primary and polls show the race to be competitive. In April Mullin had a testy town hall where he told citizens he does the job as a “service” and not a career. His constituents had a different view, pointing out that the congressman does draw a federal salary. A representative of Mullin told The Washington Post that he was referring to the taxes he has paid over the years as a business owner.
On his web site, Mullin posts that he is a “Proud Cherokee” who grew up in Westville where he grew up. “A proud Cherokee citizen, Markwayne is one of only two Native American Members of Congress,” the site says. (Previously: Mullin could face challenge)
The Oklahoman calls Mullin one of President Trump’s “most vocal backers.” Other Republicans in the state, for example, have been critical of the president’s trade policies because of the impact of tariffs on farmers and small businesses.
“President Trump isn’t starting a trade war, and if you think he is—you’re blind to the fact that we are already in the middle of one,” Mullin wrote in an op-ed for Fox News. “President Trump is a negotiator. He was elected by the American people because he is a businessman aiming to Make America Great Again, not a politician who is loyal to a political party but one who is loyal to the American working class. Our international trade deals are outdated and in need of renegotiation. This is exactly what President Trump was elected to do: negotiate a deal that works in the best interests of the American people.”
Mullin recently worked on bipartisan legislation to combat the opioid crisis by mandating and recording electronic prescriptions for all controlled substances under Medicare. “This would cut down drastically on the amount of opioids given to patients, as doctors nationwide would be able to see the prescription history of their patients and more importantly, the last time they were prescribed opioids,” he wrote in an op-ed for The Hill. The bill passed the House last week.
In a video tweet, Mullin said that national security should be the priority in the debate about the border. He said the House “failed” to pass an immigration bill that would “protect southern borders. National security should be our first priority. We must protect our country, which starts with Congress coming together and supporting a bill that gives us the protection we need.”
Nichols graduated from Tahlequah High School and decided to remain close to home and went to Northeastern State University. “Northeastern State produces more American Indian graduates than any other public university in the United States,” his web site reports. “As citizen of the Cherokee Nation, Jason was a prime example of that statistic, earning both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from that institution where he now enjoys a career as an instructor of Political Science.” He has worked for the Tahlequah Public Schools, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee, and was the City of Tahlequah’s first Information Technology Manager.
Nichols cites his experience in municipal and tribal governments as a reference point. At a town hall in Miami, Nichols was asked why he would wade into the Washington mess. "I want to go Washington because of the way it is,” he answered.
McInstosh works for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation as the Secretary of the Nation and Commerce. He told Indian Country Today: “One area I intend to work on for Indian Country is using my background in finance to expand economic development opportunities. President Trump’s budget proposal included eliminating the program for Native Community Development Finance Institutions. This program is targeted to provide opportunities for entrepreneurs that do not have access to traditional bank lending sources. I’ve seen the positive effects of this program and know its potential.”
He says he is the only candidate in the race who has experience working in a tribal government.
“One major concern I have is the increasing levels of the deficit will lead to budget cuts. When budget cuts happen on the federal level, tribes are typically disproportionately affected,” McInstosh said. “The federal government has a responsibility to uphold its treaty obligations.”
Oklahoma, like many southern states, requires primary candidates to receive more than 50 percent of the vote in order to avoid a runoff election. If candidates fail to reach that bar there will be second primary, a runoff in August.
Mullin has raised more than $1.14 million in his bid for re-election. Nichols most recent Federal Election Commission report shows some $44,000 in contributions while McIntosh stands at $21,000.
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