SEATTLE – Claudia Kauffman is an American Indian woman who is making politicians across Washington state take notice. On Sept. 19, she captured the Democratic nomination for the state Senate seat in suburban Seattle’s 47th District with a tough primary victory over opponent Ed Crawford, the former police chief of Kent.
“The issues I ran on really resonated with the people of the district,” said Kauffman afterwards. “This is truly a grass-roots campaign. A lot of people put in a lot of real hard work and I believe that it paid off. It was hard work combined with a lot of passion for the issues.”
Kauffman is a member of the Nez Perce Tribe but was raised in Seattle and is a well-known community leader in Kent which lies just south of Seattle. The 47th District is considered a swing district and has been held for the past 12 years by Steve Johnson, a Republican.
The Washington state Democratic Party is hoping Kauffman wins again on Election Day in November over Republican candidate Mike Riley. Should she win, she will help the Democrats strengthen their control over a closely divided state Legislature in Olympia in which they hold only a three-seat majority.
Kauffman’s primary victory was not by any means guaranteed. Her opponent was a well known and respected police chief who drew strong support from labor, education and law enforcement organizations. Nevertheless, Kauffman benefited from her early entry into the race and her ability to raise money – more than $100,000 so far – and her campaign earned the endorsement of The Seattle Times.
When it comes to politics, it is clear that Kauffman plays to win. Recalling her decision to run for state Senate, she said, “Where I live, the Senate seat was held by a Republican and the two House seats were held by Democrats. So, last year, I went to the House members and asked them if they wanted to run for the Senate seat or stay in the House. I would run for the open position. Either way, I told them, I’m moving forward. So I gave them six months to decide.”
When both of the Democratic representatives decided against a run for the Senate seat, Kauffman jumped into the race in January.
Kauffman’s campaign has drawn the support of American Indians. She has been endorsed by INDN’s List, a national political organization dedicated to promoting and supporting American Indian Democratic candidates, as well as tribes across the state.
Kauffman’s decision to run for office came to her naturally. She explained, “My family has always been involved in politics. Even when I was a little kid we used to make up signs and go down with our parents to the street corner. For me it was just part of our lives to be involved. Another big part of our lives was serving our communities. My parents raised me with the values of taking care of your children, respecting your elders, honoring your veterans and serving your community. It was a way of life.”
Kauffman, 47, grew up in the diverse Beacon Hill section of Seattle as the youngest of seven children. Her family was active in local politics and took part in the famous Indian takeover of Fort Lawton in Seattle in 1970. She started working in the late 1980s for the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation in Seattle under the mentorship of the late Bernie White Bear, the charismatic and visionary Indian leader who led the Fort Lawton takeover. It was White Bear who introduced her to lobbying for programs and funding on frequent trips to meet with state legislators in the state capital of Olympia.
Later she began working for the Muckleshoot Tribe where she now serves as Intergovernmental Affairs liaison, a position which brings her into daily contact with state legislators and political power brokers.
She named education as one of her top priorities. “My kids go to public school here in Kent. I chair the American Indian Parents Advisory Council. I would like to know what is keeping our children from graduating high school. In our school district the graduation rate overall is near 70 percent. But the Indian graduation rate is only 34 percent. So, where are the Indian children going? What’s happening to them? What can we do as parents? What can we do as a community to fix this problem? Let’s take this issue to Olympia and do something about it.”
As for what makes her a Democrat, Kauffman said, “I am really concerned about the things that go back to my values – which is taking care of children, your elders and your veterans and providing those services. And that is what the Democratic Party has been much better at – providing those services to those people instead of catering to big business.”
She joins three other American Indian Democratic candidates who are running for state offices in Washington this November. They are John McCoy, the incumbent House representative for District 38, Tulalip; Don Barlow, Spokane, who is running for House representative in District 6; and Glen Pinkham, Yakima, who is running for House representative for District 15.
Kauffman’s chances for victory in November look promising. A state Senate victory may prove a stepping stone to even higher office. But for now, she remains “committed to the race and committed to winning.”
Kauffman added, “Some people have called me courageous for wanting to run. Others have called me crazy. But for me, I don’t consider myself any of those things. It’s just the next step in wanting to serve my community. It goes back to the manner in which I was raised – that you are to serve your community.”