The table is set for the 2018 November elections and Native American candidates are making history. For example there are more candidates this year for lieutenant governor than for all statewide offices two years ago.
One. The Record.
Yes it’s a record year for Native candidates. Oklahoma voters in both parties nominated tribal citizens for the office of governor, lieutenant governor, and for the corporation commission. There are three tribal citizens running for Congress. That’s a total of six major offices in one state. Say what you want … that’s a seat at the table.
Kevin Stitt, Cherokee, won the Republican primary Tuesday. He cites his record from business and promises to make major changes in state government. Stitt comes into the race at a time when the incumbent Gov. Mary Fallin is unpopular -- and that gives the Democrats a chance to win in November. He will be running against former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson whose family name is familiar. Stitt would make history if he wins. He would be the first tribal citizen to serve as governor and the first Republican in at least 64 years to win without holding elective office first. (Odd fact, I know.)
It’s fair to say that Stitt has a lot to learn about tribal relations in the state. At one event he introduced himself as a “registered Cherokee.” The idea of citizenship -- and the role of tribal nations -- seems new to him.
Anastasia Pittman, Seminole, is the Democratic Party candidate for lieutenant governor. She is an experienced legislator and has chaired the Native American caucus.
And while no Native American has served as Oklahoma governor, there have been runs in the past. Pittman told the Oklahoma Eagle that she “follows in the footsteps of for State Senator Enoch Kelly Haney. Haney made a vigorous run for Governor and eventually was elected as Chief of the Seminole Nation.”
Pittman would be the first Native American woman to serve as a lieutenant governor in any state. (And she is one of four Native women running for the office nationally.)
Two. Native women.
Across the country Native women are running for office and winning party nominations. In Oklahoma Tuesday, Ashley McCray, Absentee Shawnee, won a statewide primary for Corporation Commission.
The Arizona state Senate could be reshaped by Native women. As in a “caucus” vote where Native women could reach consensus on an issue and then vote as a bloc.
Let’s put this in perspective: There are now four tribal citizens serving in the Arizona legislature, Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, Navajo, in the Senate, and three in the House, Representatives Wenona Benally, Navajo; Eric Deschinne, Navajo; and, Sally Ann Gonzales, Pascua Yaqui. Benally and Deschinne did not run for re-election, but are being replaced by two Navajo candidates who are running unopposed, Myron Tsosie and Arlando Teller. So there will be two Native legislators in the House. In the Senate, three Native women won their primaries and if they win in November would serve together. Peshlakai, as well as, Rep. Gonzales, and former Rep. Victoria Steele, Seneca.
Steele and Gonzales reflect this year’s trend. It’s not just that more Native American women are running for office (they are) but that Native women with experience are running. Both Gonzales and Steele served in the state House. They know how the system works. They know how to raise money. They know how to network. They know how to govern.
A fourth candidate for the state Senate, Deb Manuel-Nez, Navajo, was running in an urban district. She appeared to fall short in her bid for office by 333 votes. What’s extraordinary (and promising should she run again) is that she challenged an incumbent. That’s a tough way to win office.
Amanda Douglas, a candidate for Congress in the Oklahoma first congressional district, also fell short in the runoff election.
Two Native women, Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, and Sharice Davids, Ho Chunk, are Democratic Party nominees in New Mexico and Kansas. And, as we point out again and again, a Native American woman has never been elected to the Congress. Ever.
Native candidates are expanding the range of discourse. Take Oklahoma. And Ashley McCray’s bid for the Corporation Commission. She gives voters a real choice come November. She’s running in an oil state promising to rethink how energy is regulated. She is promoting renewable energy and the prospect of a new kind of job base. She’s also bringing enthusiasm to a race that usually would be at the bottom of most news articles.
She posted Tuesday on Facebook: “There's nothing like the power of the people ...Now, onto November and unseating this 30 year incumbent.”
Oklahoma voters have a choice. A real choice about policy. And that’s always a good thing.
Four. Native versus Native.
There are three Native men running for Congress in Oklahoma. Republican Reps. Tom Cole, Chickasaw; Markwayne Mullin, Cherokee; and now Democrat Jason Nichols, Cherokee. But what’s extraordinary is that Mullin and Nichols are opponents. This is one of two races nationally where Native Americans are the Republican and the Democratic party nominees. (Let that sink in. Really.)
Nearly 20 percent of the voters in the Oklahoma second congressional district are tribal citizens. It’s a district that is more rural than urban. And voters could go either way. Mullin won two years ago with 70 percent of the vote. But the world has changed since then and he is now vulnerable on the issues. This will be fascinating.
Cole is running for re-election in Oklahoma’s fourth congressional district and will face Democrat Mary Brannon.
This is the question that goes beyond the last primary of the season: Will people actually go to the polls in November?
Across the country the answer so far has been yes. Make that YES. In Arizona the Secretary of State’s office reported that at least 837,998 voters cast early ballots, nearly a quarter of registered voters. The total was expected to top 1.1 million votes. The previous record was 933,650 in a primary.
Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter -@TrahantReports
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