Tricia Zunker’s journey from school board to Congress

Democratic candidate says her extensive legal background will be useful in Washington.

On Indigenous Peoples Day, the founder of the Central Wisconsin Indigenous Peoples’ Day Committee announced her campaign to run for Congress in the state of Wisconsin. 

Tricia Zunker, Ho-Chunk, will run on the Democrat ticket to take the 7th congressional seat in a special election.

The current associate justice for the Ho-Chunk Nation Supreme Court told WSAU News that this move to run for a seat has “been in the works for a bit.”

Wisconsin Republican Rep. Sean Duffy,, who served five terms, resigned from the 7th congressional district late last month. His wife is expecting their ninth child and he wanted to focus on his family.

Zunker saw this as an opportunity.

“Since the day the resignation has been announced I’ve been thinking about it,” she told WSAU News after her announcement. “I had intended down the road to run for this seat. It was something I had considered in great detail when the timing seemed right.”

“I’m running for Congress to be a voice for the people of northwest Wisconsin,” said Zunker who grew up in Wausau. It’s home.

The lawyer will be the second Native woman to run for Congress since Ada Deer, Menominee, ran in 1992. Deer lost to Republican Scott Klug. Zunker will also be the second Ho-Chunk woman to run for Congress. Rep. Sharice Davids was the first and is likely seeking re-election.

Zunker has been serving in the tribal nation’s court since 2013 and was re-elected in 2017. While serving on the bench she also teaches at numerous universities and colleges around the country.

The tribal citizen received her law degree from the University of California in Los Angeles. The first-generation college student also obtained her bachelor's degree in three programs and a certificate within four years at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

The mother of a 9-year-old and rescue dog also serves on the Wausau School Board and has been for two years. Part of her time goes to the board of directors for the ACLU of Wisconsin.

Even though Zunker writes herself as a Democrat, she says she will “represent all people of the 7th congressional district.”

“People over party,” she said and will work to find common ground with lawmakers across the aisle.

She says her time serving for the Ho-Chunk Nation’s Supreme Court can help her in Washington.

“What I do on the Ho-Chunk Supreme Court is I interpret and apply laws of the Ho-Chunk Nation and it is just a very objective, reasonable application and I think that is what’s needed in Washington,” she said. “People that are objective, reasonable, that can see this is what’s best for the people.”

The congressional candidate finds it is time to jump in and make a change because things aren’t getting done for her state.

“I have become increasingly frustrated watching what is happening in Washington because Wisconsin isn’t getting a fair deal,” she said at the press conference. “Washington isn’t delivering for families, paying too much for healthcare, farmers who are being squeezed by the ongoing trade war, and seniors who are struggling to pay for prescription drugs.”

She said both parties haven’t stood up to the drug and insurance companies about lowering prescription costs and said, “I’ll take them on.”

Zunker wants to give people options when it comes to health care, which is why she wants to have medicare and private insurance.

She also wants to protect the earth.

“I firmly believe that we need to protect our beautiful environment,” she said. “Lands like these, lands that exist throughout the 7th congressional district.”

With that in mind, she vows to not take money from corporations for her race because “corporate lobbyists are part of the problem in Washington, not the solution.”

Zunker will compete against four others who have shown interest: Democrat Lawrence Dale and three Republicans, Jason Church, Michael Opela, and Tom Tiffany.

Duffy’s early resignation makes this election a unique one. The special election was set to be for Jan. 27 with a primary on Dec. 30 ordered by Governor Tony Evers. But the date conflicted with state and federal laws. The district is waiting for a new date to be set by the governor which will likely be in April or May, according to WPR.

Much of northwest Wisconsin is Ojibwe land, according to the Wisconsin Indigenous Education Association.

It is made of many tribal nations that include Forest County Potawatomi, Sokaogon Chippewa (Mole Lake), St. Croix Chippewa, Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Ho-Chunk Nation, and Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

There are nine reservations and off-reservation trust lands with three partial entities within the 7th congressional district, according to the 2010 Census.

Wisconsin is also considered to be a swing state for this upcoming election. It’s a red state now. Milwaukee is hosting the 2020 Democratic National Convention in July.

Native candidates running for Congress along with Zunker include Karen E. Bedonie, Navajo, in New Mexico on the Republican ticket, Dineh Benally, Navajo, in New Mexico, Gavin Clarson, Choctaw, in New Mexico, Yvette Herrell, Cherokee, for New Mexico and Sen. Kai Kahele, Native Hawaiin, who wants to unseat Tulsi Gabbard in Hawaii.

ICYMI: ‘It’s time to put a Navajo in Congress’

Other Native candidates whose positions are up for re-election are Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo and D-New Mexico, Oklahoma Republican Rep. Tom Cole, Chickasaw, Oklahoma Republican Rep. Markwayne Mullin, Cherokee, and Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk, in Kansas. 

With two Native women in the 116th Congress and Wisconsin’s special election in the spring, there could be three Native women serving in Congress this session. 

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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is the Washington editor for Indian Country Today based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email: jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com

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