This story has been updated.
Two years ago Denise Juneau was making history. She was running for Montana’s only seat in Congress. It was a hundred years since Jeannette Rankin had won that same seat, the first woman ever elected to the Congress. So a century later Juneau, Mandan Hidatsa and Arikara, would be the ideal first Native woman to serve. Indeed, she was following her plan perfectly, raising $3 million, crisscrossing the huge state, and mobilizing voters.
Still, she lost.
“I don't feel bad about losing,” she told me. (Juneau is now Superintendent of Schools for the city of Seattle.) “I'm disappointed we lost, but I don't feel bad about it because we did everything we were supposed to. We just lost. That's actually a really good space for me.”
Then she turned philosophical.
“Every time another Native woman steps up to run for any office, whether that be the state legislature, city council, U.S. Congress, it sort of paves the way. There's sort of a pipeline, which is really awesome right now, that there's never been a path for Native women to just really step up. I believe right now, we're in a time and space where we see that happening,” Juneau said. “There will be a first at some point.”
That “first at some point” is coming fast. There are now more Native women running for office than men, 52 candidates out of 100 running across the nation. More Native women than men are candidates for office ranging from governor to seats in state legislatures.
The only exception: Congress. There are three Native women and five Native men campaiging for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. How does this compare to the rest of the country? Nationally it’s a record year for women seeking office: There are currently 251 women seeking one of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 26 women seeking one of 35 Senate seats.
Across the country, across the wide channel that we call “politics,” this is an extraordinary year. There are more Native Americans running for a variety of offices than at any point in history. So there will be another “first” in 2018. Many firsts, actually.
One expression of that has been the media interest this year in the Native American candidates. The New York Times, National Public Radio, and NBC News, all asking the same question? “How does this compare to previous years?”
That’s a tough one. The numbers change a lot from the beginning of the campaign season until Labor Day. Good candidates lose primaries. Others drop out for a variety of reasons. So it’s difficult to compare this year’s cycle to last year’s cycle. Except from Labor Day until November. This is when the general election is set and we can accurate compare this election a previous one. (And forget going back too far. No one collected this data before I started doing it.)
So let’s compare. Two years ago at this point, including Juneau, there were five candidates for Congress, a total of three Democrats and two Republicans. There were four candidates for statewide offices in two states, North Dakota and South Dakota.
And this year? There are 10 candidates for Congress. A dozen running for statewide offices, including three for governor and another five for lieutenant governor. There are 78 Native Americans running for state legislatures across the country. (One of these days I want to include a list of Native Americans on county commissions, school boards, and city officials, too. Hashtag, #ToDoList.)
One of the dangers of publishing lists -- as I have been doing for several elections now -- is that there is always someone else.
Last week a new name was added to my tally, Yvette Herrell, who running to represent the second congressional district in New Mexico as a Republican. The Cherokee Nation let me know that Herrell is a citizen. (That also shows that my list itself is an understatement. Herrell was serving in the New Mexico legislature and was even serving on the Indian affairs committee. Yet she wasn’t on my list of elected legislators.) The seat is now held by a Republican, Rep. Steve Pearce who’s running for governor.
So New Mexico could send two, not one, Native American women to the Congress.
Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, is the Democratic nominee in the state’s first congressional district. She is in the sweet spot, the party nominee in a district where Democrats start with an advantage.
And, speaking of running down hill, there is an interesting development in Kansas.
Sharice Davids, Ho Chunk, has already won her primary and is a candidate in a district now represented by a Republican. Last week the Republican Congressional Committee said it was making tough decisions about this year’s election spending about which candidates get financial support. “Kansas Rep. Kevin Yoder, an imperiled suburban congressman whom Democrats are spending heavily to defeat, has recently complained to allies that the national committee hasn’t done enough to help him in his reelection bid, according to four people familiar with the conversations,” Politico reported.
Good news for Davids. But it is still a seat that Democrats have not won in a long time. But at some point that will change. As Davids said: “I keep saying how surprised I am that we’re in 2018, and we’re still having all these firsts.”
She would be (like Haaland and Herrell) the first Native woman ever elected to Congress. And she would add another new voice, she would be the first lesbian to represent Kansas.
Then this election has so many firsts, such as three Native candidates for governor. There have been a few candidates over the years that have sought that office, such as Larry EchoHawk in 1994 and Byron Mallott four years ago, but not two. Let alone three.
EchoHawk, Pawnee, ran in Idaho. Where Paulette Jordan, Coeur d'Alene, is now the Democratic Party nominee. Think of that: In a state where the Native population is about 1 percent there are two Native Americans as party nominees for the top office. Jordan continues to get national attention, the latest from Elle magazine. “What’s so rare, that people have never seen in this country, is an indigenous woman run and lead,” she said. “It’s never happened in the history of this country, that a woman would run and lead on the executive level like this, a senior executive level, a CEO of state. And so we’re breaking boundaries now as we speak.”
Jordan is, of course, the first Native woman to seek that office. But she is not alone. Andria Tupola won the Republican Party nomination in Hawaii. Like Jordan, Tupola, served in the legislature, and her message also transcends partisan politics. She told the Hawaii Free Press that she wants to change minds. “So many voices are missing, the state is making decisions that the community is not happy about.” Her advice: “Don’t focus on the legislature, or the party or the unions, focus on the community. Raise the bar, step up the game.” And the kicker in the piece by Susan Halas. “It was an unexpected ‘Feel the Bern’ moment from the other side of the aisle.”
That paragraph says a lot about this particular election.
The third Native American candidate for governor is Kevin Stitt, Cherokee, whose career has been in business. He has not said much about tribal issues but has participated in a forum with the tribes. He was endorsed last week by President Donald J. Trump. He tweeted: "Kevin Stitt ran a great winning campaign against a very tough opponent in Oklahoma," Trump tweeted. "Kevin is a very successful businessman who will be a fantastic Governor. He is strong on Crime & Borders, the 2nd Amendment, & loves our Military & Vets. He has my complete and total Endorsement!"
There is a 100 percent increase in party nominees for Congress; a 300 percent increase in statewide candidates; and a seven percent increase in candidates for state legislatures.
It’s also interesting to see the party breakdown this time around: Four Democrats are running for Congress; four Republicans; one Green Party candidate; and one candidate representing the Independence Party of Minnesota.
There are three races with Native Americans competing with other Native Americans on the November ballot: Minnesota with a Republican and a Democrat competing for lieutenant governor; Alaska where there is a three-way race for lieutenant governor; and Oklahoma’s second congressional district. There was even a G.O.P. primary with two tribal citizens on the ballot in the New Mexico second congressional district.
One more number. Two years ago only one Native American was elected to the Arizona state senate. This year that number could be three, incumbent Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, former Rep. Victoria Steele, and current Rep. Sally Ann Gonzales. That would be a three-fold increase -- and a caucus where policy could be sorted out and championed as a group.
That’s real power. But there is another lesson. Gonzales was first elected to the Arizona legislature in 1996. She was a caucus of one. Now there is a caucus in the House, the Senate, and Native voices are included in Arizona’s broader political discourse.
As Juneau says: “There is a pipeline of people, a pipeline of Native women now that is being built, not just for stepping up and raising your hand, and running for this seat, but also Native women working on campaigns and Native women being involved at central committees, democratic central committees, and Native women finding their place in mainstream politics.” That is the power, she said, because it lays the groundwork for others to follow.
Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter -@TrahantReports
Are you using the new mobile platform? Get Indian Country Today on your phone with apps from The News Maven.