Claudia Kauffman makes history in Washington state 'First Native woman elected to state Senate'


KENT, Wash. – Claudia Kauffman, Nez Perce, made Washington state history Nov. 7.

Kauffman, 47, became the first American Indian woman elected to the Washington state Senate. But her successful campaign also transcended racial bounds; her constituents saw her not as an American Indian candidate for the Senate, but as a candidate who happens also to be American Indian.

Kauffman, a Democrat, received 12,864 votes to Republican Mike Riley’s 11,561 to become the next senator from the state’s 47th District. She will take office in January.

“It’s the manner in which I was raised, the basic values American Indians have – taking care of our children, respecting our elders, honoring our veterans, serving our community,” Kauffman said of her motivation to run for Senate. “I’ve been around these values all my life and I have had an opportunity to do these things on so many different levels; the next natural step for me was to run for office.”

Kauffman’s background as a working mother, small-business owner and education activist resonated with voters of the 47th District, where the high school graduation rate is below the state average (it’s 34 percent for American Indian students), classrooms are getting crowded and more funding is needed for early learning programs.

Those are the issues she wants to tackle come January; at a post-election meeting in Olympia, the senator-elect submitted requests to serve on the education and transportation committees.

Kauffman said early learning programs are critical in preparing at-risk children for school; this, in turn, will lead to better graduation rates, she said. She wants to get more money directed to education to reduce class sizes and incorporate subjects that will better prepare students for life after graduation.

“The Kent School District has made strides in that area,” she said. “We need to focus on getting kids into school and getting them to stay in school.”

Kauffman is the mother of three children: Joseph, 21; Jessie, 14; and Zintkala, 13. She lives in Kent with her husband, Larry, and her two daughters.

She is the intergovernmental affairs liaison for the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe. Previously, she was deputy project manager for the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation’s People’s Lodge Project, overseeing pre-development, planning and community relations. As a private consultant, she worked with the Oglala Sioux Tribe to coordinate President Clinton’s visit to Pine Ridge, S.D., in 1999.

She served as chairman of the Kent School District’s Indian Education Parent Committee, on Antioch University’s Board of Visitors and as a governor-appointed member of the Evergreen State College Board of Trustees.

She is a member of the Minority Executive Directors Coalition of King County. She co-founded the Native Action Network, which promotes civic participation, community development and leadership development. She has been a panelist on the civic and university levels on leadership, voter participation and education issues.

While her election transcended racial bounds, Kauffman is aware of the importance of her background as a Nez Perce woman. “I want to contribute to a broader perspective in the state Senate,” she said. “Before [her election], there was only one Asian-American, one African-American and one Latino in the Senate. I believe we’ve changed the face of the [Senate].”

Kauffman’s presence in the state Senate could help on issues facing Native communities. For example, Quil Ceda Village, an incorporated municipality on the Tulalip Reservation, contributes sales tax revenue to the state of Washington. Yet the state doesn’t return a portion of that revenue to the village government like it does Quil Ceda’s neighboring city, Marysville, and other nontribal local governments.

A bill to give Quil Ceda Village a share of its sales and use tax was approved 93 – 3 in the House last year, but it died in the Senate.

In addition, Kauffman will encourage the use of Native culture-based reading curriculum, as well as history curriculum that includes American Indian history. While there is no law requiring the teaching of Native history or the use of culture-based reading curriculum, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson signed a Memorandum of Understanding on May 25 that encourages school boards and tribal councils to promote increased understanding of Native history, culture and government.

Rep. John McCoy, who worked for the development of Native culture-based reading curriculum and for the inclusion of American Indian history in history curriculum, said that the educators he’s talked to say it’s needed, “but they want dollars to come with it; they don’t want it to be an unfunded mandate.”

Other Native people re-elected to the Legislature on Nov. 7: McCoy, Tulalip Tribes, was re-elected to the state House of Representatives, representing the 38th District. Jim Dunn, of Battle Ground, and Jeff Morris, of Anacortes, both Alaska Natives, were re-elected in the 17th and 40th districts, respectively. All three are Democrats.

<i>Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at