Washington voters are one step away from electing another Native American to the state Legislature and sending the former chairman of the Colville Tribes to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Sharlaine LaClair, executive director of the Lummi Ventures economic development program and a Lummi Nation planning commissioner, advanced August 2 to the general election in the race for state House of Representatives from the 42nd District.
LaClair, a Democrat, finished second of four candidates with 12,891 votes. Luanne Van Werven, a Republican and incumbent seeking a second term, finished first with 16,600 votes.
East of the Cascades, former Colville Tribes chairman Joe Pakootas advanced to the general election in the race for U.S. House from the 5th Congressional District.
Pakootas, a Democrat, finished second of five candidates with 42,600 votes. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican and the incumbent, finished first with 56,676 votes.
If LaClair is elected, she will be one of four Native Americans in the Washington Legislature. The others are state Sen. John McCoy, Democrat, Tulalip Tribes; state Rep. Jeff Morris, Democrat, Tsimshian; and state Rep. Jay Rodne, Republican, Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa.
If Pakootas is elected, he will be one of three Native Americans in the U.S. House of Representatives and the first from Washington state since Floyd Hicks, Paiute-Shoshone, in 1965-1977.
Both candidates have some hurdles to overcome.
Pakootas finished some 16,000 behind McMorris Rodgers in the primary. Some 35,000 votes went to three other candidates: Dave Wilson, Independent, 17,977 votes; Krystol McGee, Libertarian, 2,494; and Tom Horne, Republican, 14,857. If Pakootas can draw Independents, Libertarians and half of Horne’s votes – Republicans who chose not to vote for the incumbent -- Pakootas can win in November.
There are signs McMorris Rodgers’ support is eroded. For easier comparison, let’s look at percentages.
In the 2014 election, Pakootas finished in the primary with 28.65 percent of the vote to McMorris Rodgers’ 51.75 percent, and 19.60 percent going to two other candidates. He finished in the general election with 39.32 percent to McMorris Rodgers’ 60.68 percent.
In this primary, Pakootas received 31.53 percent of the vote to 42.13 percent for McMorris Rodgers, and 26.34 percent going to three other candidates.
For LaClair, who finished 3,709 votes behind the incumbent in the primary, the hurdle is higher. If she draws the voters that cast ballots for Doug Karlberg, who stated no party preference, and Jacob Lamont, Libertarian, that gives her only 2,522 more votes. She’ll need to attract voters away from Van Werven and get voters out to their polling places.
Pakootas and LaClair can expect a higher voter turnout in the general than in the primary.
Another hurdle: Convincing mainstream voters that experience in tribal government is as important as experience in other forms of government, be it local, county, state, or federal.
“When you look at employment in Washington state, the 29 federally recognized tribes in Washington are, combined, the fourth-largest employer in the state,” state Democratic Party Native American Caucus Committee chairwoman Julie Johnson, Lummi, said in an earlier interview.
As chairman of the Colville Tribes, Pakootas was the head of an indigenous Nation that has a government-to-government relationship with the United States of America. Pakootas was chairman when his government led the removal of heavy metals from the Columbia River and Lake Roosevelt, and he is credited with leading Colville’s business enterprises to profits in four years. The Colville Tribes and its enterprises is the largest employer in North Central Washington.
Colville has 9,500 citizens and its reservation comprises 11 communities in a geographic area of 3,307.5 square miles – an area almost the size of Puerto Rico, although its historical area was much larger. Colville’s Tribal government has more than 40 departments and public services.
Pakootas, who has an MBA from the University of Washington and also served as CEO of the Nez Perce Tribe’s economic development arm, supports campaign finance reform; is a gun owner who believes “our country can find the right balance between honoring individual rights and ensuring the safety of our communities”; supports reform of the criminal justice system; and supports increasing funding for higher education and allowing students to refinance student loans.
Pakootas called McMorris Rodgers contradictory for endorsing Donald Trump for president.
“We’ve all heard the racist, misogynistic, prejudice, hateful, uneducated, and fear-mongering comments that Donald Trump has made,” Pakootas wrote on his campaign website. “My opponent must now navigate within a culture that perpetuates and even promotes this behavior. She says that Donald Trump ‘Owes it to our country to treat everyone respectfully and to build an inclusive coalition.’ How is it possible for my opponent to maintain her stated values while also supporting Mr. Trump’s toxic ideology? In light of the serious issues that our country is currently facing, do these hateful values and destructive policies really represent our District?” (80 percent of Republican voters in the 5th District voted for Trump. A majority of Democrats in the district voted for Bernie Sanders).
LaClair leads a program that is working to develop economic opportunities, improve access to education, and build healthy families. She has a master’s degree in public administration from The Evergreen State College. She also races war canoes as a member of the Autumn Rose Canoe Club.
Her priorities in the state House: “My experience … has shown me the incredible power of education and economic opportunity to build strong communities,” she said on her website. “I want this opportunity for all Whatcom residents. Our area is blessed with an incredible variety of natural beauty and resources. It is our duty to protect and use [them] responsibly.”
She added, “My family has prospered along the land and waters of Whatcom County since time immemorial. As stewards of our homeland, my inherent values reflect a deep sense of responsibility to honor all people and to give back. I will work to ensure all children receive a quality education and residents have opportunities to thrive.”
A Van Werven negative to many Democrats, Native Americans and environment-minded voters: Van Werven supported the coal-shipping terminal that was proposed at Cherry Point, which is sacred to the Lummi people and is an environmentally sensitive area. The Army Corps of Engineers denied the project permit.
So, a Native candidate, or a candidate who happens to be Native?
There are several Native Americans in state and local positions of leadership in Washington state. But acceptance of Native candidates has not been fast. In Seattle, one of the 20 largest cities in the U.S., Native Americans were elected for the first time to the city council and school board – in 2015. In nearby Kitsap County, home of the Port Gamble S’Klallam and Suquamish reservations, voters elected a Native American candidate to the North Kitsap School Board in 2013 – reportedly the first Native American elected to non-Tribal public office in the county’s history.
When a person who happens to be Native American runs for office outside of tribal government, is he or she seen by mainstream voters as the “Native American candidate” for office, or as a candidate for office who happens to be Native American? Is his or her experience in tribal government given the same weight as experience in other levels of government?
Darrell Hillaire, a stage and film producer and former chairman of the Lummi Nation, is skeptical. “[The] mainstream voter doesn't have a clue. I think racial stereotypes are alive and well,” he said, adding that Democrats, too, “can be paternalistic.”
McCoy, the state senator from Tulalip, thinks stereotypes will diminish with education. He authored a state law that requires public schools to teach the Native American history, culture and governance for their region, just as they teach civics and state and national history. But that law took effect in the 2015-16 school year.
“The general population needs more education on tribal governments,” McCoy said. The lack of understanding “is caused by the lack of K-12 education about tribes.”
Debora Juarez, Blackfeet, the first citizen of a Native Nation elected to the Seattle City Council, is confident voters will appreciate Pakootas’ and LaClair’s career and life experiences, and the candidates’ ability to connect with residents in their districts.
“A Native candidate is different and more powerful, because of our natural inclination to live with the people we represent,” she said.
In a text message, independent print and broadcast journalist Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, pointed to other current candidates that he says “transcend” being “Native candidates,” among them U.S. Senate candidate Edgar Blatchford, Alaska Native, a former mayor of Seward who served in the cabinets of two governors; Denise Juneau, Mandan-Hidatsa, Montana’s state superintendent of public schools, a candidate for U.S. House of Representatives from her state; and U.S. Congressmen Tom Coles, Chickasaw, and Markwayne Mullin, Cherokee, both of Oklahoma.
“They are very mainstream,” Trahant wrote.
In addition, two citizens of the Lummi Nation - Steven Oliver and Teresa Taylor - are serving as Whatcom County treasurer and Ferndale City Council member, respectively.