Labor Day marks the beginning of the political campaign season. Sort of. If you live in a state with competitive races, then you have been watching TV ads for a long time.
Now we’re only two months away from Election Day and there is a sense of urgency.
So what does the election landscape look like for Indian country?
First, before looking at policy, let’s consider people. Indian country has a number of really interesting candidates this cycle, folks who are running at all levels of government.
At the state level, Byron Mallott is the Democratic primary winner in a three-way race for governor of Alaska. Mallott is Tlingit from the village of Yakutat and the former chief executive of Sealaska Corporation.
However there are reports Monday that this race might be shaken-up in a merger between Mallott and independent Bill Walker. If this happens, it will be before Tuesday to meet state balloting requirements.
The reason there is even talk of a merger is math. The incumbent governor, Republican Sean Parnell, won easily four years ago and is polling between 37 percent and 50 percent depending on how many candidates are considered. In a three-way race, Parnell’s poll numbers range from the high 30s to the low 40s, a considerable advantage over Walker and Mallott who are both in the 20s.
This state is rated as “safe Republican” by Real Clear Politics.
It still would be a long shot for Parnell to lose in a two-way race. Possible. But extremely difficult.
Why does this race matter to Indian country? Alaska could be the shinning star when it comes to state-tribal relations. But that’s not the way it is. As I have written before, Parnell has been on the opposite side of nearly every issue that matters to Alaska Native communities. He rejected Medicaid expansion, something that would have created some 4,000 jobs and improved the funding for the Alaska Native medical system. On issues ranging from the Violence Against Women Act to the Katie John case, Parnell has been dismissive or outright hostile to tribal concerns.
Stay tuned in case there are developments this week.
At the congressional level, another race to keep an eye on is in Washington state.
Joe Pakootas is a former chairman of the Colville Confederated Tribes. His best selling point is that he was chief executive officer of the tribe’s enterprises. When he was hired, the businesses were stuck in debt and losing some $3 million a year. By 2013 the enterprises earned $86 million and won the University of Washington’s William D. Bradford Minority Business of the Year Award.
But Washington’s fifth district is a tough seat for any Democrat. His opponent, Cathy McMorris Rodgers is the only woman in the House GOP leadership. In her last election she won nearly 62 percent of the vote.
Why these two candidates matter to Indian country?
Both Mallott and Pakootas are leaders who bring Native values into a larger conversation. This is not just candidates who happen to be Native American, but people who have worked within the Native Community, who have a history in Indian country, and who will still be engaged regardless of the election.
This very idea is important because it’s a story that includes tribal governments and enterprises as part of a larger national discourse. When someone with a tribal background wins — and that will happen — then it will become a matter of routine to consider tribal leaders for Congress, the Senate or as governors, because of their experience in tribal government.
This is not new.
Some three decades ago, Mel Tonasket, another former chairman of the Colville Tribes, ran for the same House seat as Pakootas against the then Speaker of the House Thomas S. Foley, a Democrat. In order to bring attention to Native issues, Tonasket ran first as an independent in 1978 and then two years later as a Republican.
Tonasket had been president of the National Congress of American Indians.
Twenty years before that, Joe Garry, while president of NCAI, ran for the U.S. Senate from Idaho. The Couer d’Alene tribal leader entered the race because, his biographer said, “he told himself that it was his time.”
Running for the Senate was a natural step because Garry already understood the system, had political experience, and had earned a reputation for integrity, wrote John Fahey in the book, “Saving the Reservation, Joe Garry and the Battle to Be Indian.”
Then, and now, Indian country has a deep talent pool. There are tribal leaders who govern remarkably well, often with fewer resources than their state or federal counterparts control. There is a spirit of innovation in many Native communities that’s worth highlighting and sharing. It’s time to learn from success stories.
Garry told NCAI members that “our strongest weapon is our vote. We must work to see that every eligible Indian is registered and votes in 1960.”
And so that challenge continues today. It’s our time.
Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.