There are many firsts in the upcoming midterm elections in Minnesota. Some of the events are so unprecedented that there is no verifiable public record to prove otherwise. For instance, the three Native American candidates running for public office in Minnesota are all enrolled members of several of the 11 state bands of the Ojibwe tribe. This is very likely a first-time occurrence. More than likely.
Skip Sandman, Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, is representing the Independence Party, is running for Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District.
In an especially noteworthy first, both lieutenant governor candidates, Democrat and Republican, are both Ojibwe women. Donna Bergstrom of the Red Lake Band of Minnesota Ojibwe is the running mate for Republican governor candidate Jeff Johnson. Peggy Flanagan of the White Earth Band of Minnesota Ojibwe is running with Tim Walz, the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party candidate.
So regardless of the outcome of the gubernatorial election, a Native American woman, a member of the Ojibwe tribe, will serve as the next lieutenant governor of Minnesota.
Here, in alphabetical order, are brief biographies and agendas for the Minnesota candidates:
Donna Bergstrom, born and raised near Carlton, Minn., is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel. She retired after 20 years of service as an intelligence officer with the Corps in 2010 and moved home to Duluth from Washington D.C. with her husband Walter “Skip” Fischer and her son Ari.
A lifelong member of the Republican Party, Bergstrom values the Party’s support of personal responsibility and individual freedom especially in terms of health care. She supports elimination of the Affordable Care Act as a means to keep down health care costs and to ensure more freedom of choice. She opposes a single payer health care program.
Currently Minnesota offers no cost medical assistance through MNCare, the state’s Medicaid program for low income people or MNSure, a rate adjusted health care plan for those who can’t afford other health insurance. MNSure is provided to Native Americans at no cost. Bergstrom and Johnson want to dismantle Minnesota Sure and pare back MNCare.
Bergstrom said she decided to get involved in politics because she was troubled by high taxes and too much government intrusion in citizens lives. She ran unsuccessfully in the State Senate’s District 7 two years ago.
A guardian ad Litem, Bergstrom is concerned about both Minnesota’s low graduation rates and the high rates of home removal for Native American children.
“ICWA, the Indian Child Welfare Act, is being violated over and over again. Rather than working to put Native families back together, state social service agencies are serving as a removal agency,” she said.
The fact that Bergstrom has never held an elected office is a plus for the campaign. “Jeff wants to change the culture in St. Paul. He says, ‘the status quo has got to go,’” she said.
There are no stated plans or policies directly related to Native Americans in the Jeff Johnson for Governor campaign. “There are 11 federally recognized tribes in the state of Minnesota. Those citizens are also citizens of the state. We will represent them like we do all Minnesotans,” Bergstrom said.
Bergstrom does not see a specific set of duties for the lieutenant governor. “The lieutenant governor runs on the Governor’s ticket; it’s not a separate office,” she said. “The role is mostly ceremonial, to be there to fulfill the responsibilities of governor if the governor should be incapable of doing so.”
Her responsibility will be to keep the governor appraised of what the community is saying. “I like to use my military background to describe my role; I see myself as walking point for the governor,” she said.
Bergstrom thinks that there are many Native people in the Republican Party that go uncounted. “There are so many Native values in the Republican Party such as belief in free enterprise and freedom of choice; the media blocks us (Republican Natives) out and doesn’t recognize us,” she said.
Regarding greater numbers of Native women running for public office, Bergstrom said, “Native women have always been leaders; we take care of the families and take on other leadership roles in the community. Although we may not always be out in front, Native women are comfortable with leadership.”
“I come from a people who have been here for centuries; I am rooted here in this great nation and want to ensure that this home remains for the next 7 generations. I am very pro-life because I believe our Creator brought us here,” Bergstrom added.
Peggy Flanagan of White Earth grew up in the St. Louis Park neighborhood of Minneapolis. Flanagan is a long-time political activist and has worked for several nonprofit organizations including the Children’s Defense Fund and Wellstone Action before her election in 2015 to the Minnesota House of Representatives. She lives in Minneapolis with her daughter Siobhan.
Flanagan is a member of the Minnesota House Native American Caucus along with the three other Native American women lawmakers Jamie Becker-Finn a descendent of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Mary Kunesh-Podein, Standing Rock, and Susan Allen, Rosebud. All of the women are Democrats.
Flanagan is also a member of the DFL’s People of Color and Indigenous Caucus of state lawmakers.
“There are 14 of us out of 201 representatives. We are small, but we are mighty,” Flanagan said. “When policies that involve people of color are introduced, we support each other in ensuring that we are at the table in discussing those policies.”
Flanagan was raised by a single mom, giving her a direct link to public programs such as child care assistance, food stamps and housing that she says saved her family’s life.
She recalled when one of her legislative colleagues referred to those who used public programs as “those people” and described clients of child care assistance as losers.
“I told him that I am one of those people,” Flanagan said. “My mother used child care assistance, so she could go to work; she wasn’t a loser.”
She recalled that something switched for her that day. “I realized that I’m sitting at this table to talk about my experience and the experiences of so many others in this state; we shouldn’t be ashamed,” she said. “There is healing in truth telling.”
“We are running a hopeful campaign. Rather than focusing on the politics of division, scarcity of resources and who is worthy and who’s not, we support inclusion and working across our lines of differences. There is enough to go around for everybody,” Flanagan stated.
For instance, Flanagan and Walz support health care as a right rather than a privilege and support a future single payer health care system for Minnesotans. Until then they want to preserve the existing MN Care program.
“Tim and I unlikely allies but he admits his white male privilege. He realized he needed a running mate with a different perspective and life experience than his. We challenge each other but I think it will make us better leaders,” Flanagan said.
According to Flanagan, her presence and voice are reminders for fellow lawmakers that treaties are the supreme law of the land.
The Walz-Flanagan campaign website lists several agenda items relating to Native issues including:
Honor tribal sovereignty and government to government relationships.
Prioritize equitable education for Native students.
Work in collaboration with tribes to combat the opioid crisis.
Protect and invest in the well-being Native American children and their families.
“I was raised in a community that values humility rather than bragging on yourself. That sort of flies in the face of the functioning of electoral politics,” Flanagan noted.
She counters that cultural disconnect by frequently using “we”and “us” rather than “I” in discussing policy.
“I know that I am standing firmly on the shoulders of those who came before me. There is nothing I’ve done in my life that I’ve done alone,” she said.
Regarding the unprecedented numbers of Native women running in this election, Flanagan noted, “Indigenous women have been leaders since time immemorial. When there is distress or problems, the women roll up their sleeves and get to work.”
“It’s pretty cool that no matter how things turn out, we’ll have a Native woman in the lieutenant governor office. It’s about time.”
Skip Sandman is spiritual advisor and traditional healer at the Mash Ka Wizen Treatment Center, former corrections officer and U.S. Navy Petty Officer. He lives in Duluth with his wife Babette. Sandman ran unsuccessfully for the 8th Congressional District in 2014 as a member of the Green Party. He is currently endorsed by the Independence Party.
The 8th District is a longtime Democratic stronghold, but according to Sandman, his position as an Independent will help him reach across the aisle to fellow lawmakers. Mining and its impact on the health and safety of the environment are hot button issues here.
Home to mineral rich lands and prime wilderness areas such as the Boundary Waters, the region’s mostly Democratic white blue-collar population swung heavily towards Donald Trump in the presidential election. Republicans and Trump are winning support here as the U.S. Forest Service lifted the Obama era roadblock to copper mining in the Boundary Waters thus creating the hope for more jobs. Twin Metals is proposing a copper-nickel-precious metals mine south of Ely, in the Boundary Waters region.
Mining is deeply entrenched in Northern Minnesota. Both the DFL’s Joe Radinovich and Republican Pete Stauber support mining. Radivnovich calls for greater mining regulation and environmental impact studies while Stauber supports mining that uses scientifically based methods. He supports Trump’s decision regarding copper mining in the Boundary Waters.
Sandman opposes both the Polymet copper-nickel mine that is nearing completion in northeastern Minnesota and opening up the Boundary Waters to mining. The Polymet project will be the first copper-nickel in the state.
“The toxic effects of this mine places corporate interests over the health of our communities,” Sandman said.
Sandman proposes greater investment in green energy jobs as a means to protect the health and safety of water and fight the impact of climate change.
“I will vote to strengthen and enforce environmental laws. Also, I will not lie to you about the toxic risks to our water from the copper-sulfide mines like Polymet. After I am elected, I will not grease the wheels for these industries who refuse to invest in technology that could increase our economy without endangering the life, we in northern Minnesota love. The risk of continued support of copper-sulfide mining is not what could happen to our waterways but rather what will happen,” he said.
Sandman supports a Homeless Bill of Rights that includes rights to rest in public places, eat, share and accept food, 24 -hour access to basic hygiene facilities and others.
He is in favor of a single payer health care as well as creating a form of universal basic income (UBI) to address wealth inequity. A UBI would provide a basic living income as a means to reduce health, social and other disparities.
“As Native people we are taught to look ahead seven generations. What is the legacy we are going to leave for our children?” He asked. “I am asking people to vote their values, not their fears.”
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