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Pauly Denetclaw
Indian Country Today

While running for Congress, Charles Graham didn’t have much time to think about how historic his run could be. He focused on winning his primary election, which spoiler alert, he did with 31.2 percent of the votes, amounting to 12,947 ballots, according to the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

There’s a lot of potential with Graham: he could be the first Indigenous person elected to Congress in North Carolina and only Indigenous congressional member east of the Mississippi.

“I've represented Lumbee Tribe in the General Assembly. They're my majority constituents,” Graham told ICT the day after his primary victory. “I've been honored and privileged to fight and stand up on the floor and advocate for the things that our tribe needed. Now, I can go to Congress and do that.”

Graham is not only Lumbee but is Waccamaw Siouan, his mother’s nation.

“It almost brings a tear to my eye thinking about her and that community and what they've stood for and to be a voice for them as well,” Graham said. “I'm just so honored to have this opportunity.”

North Carolina is home to one of the largest populations of Indigenous people in the South. The Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina is the largest Native nation east of the Mississippi with over 55,000 citizens. They live across Robeson, Hoke, Cumberland and Scotland counties.

The election was too close to call for most of the night. His challenger Charles Evans, has yet to concede, waiting for provisional and absentee ballots to be counted. Graham has 1.8 percent more votes than Evans. In North Carolina, a recount challenge can only happen if the race is .50 percent or lower.

Evans told Fayetteville Observer Wednesday morning that the numbers don’t look good but he still wants to see if he will qualify for a recount.

Graham maintained a small lead most of the night by just a few hundred votes. With 31 percent of the votes, Graham avoided a runoff election. In North Carolina, candidates have to win by at least 30 percent to avoid a runoff.

“I want to personally thank those individuals who went out and stood by me,” he said.

“I want to say, as an Indigenous man, as an Indigenous nominee, I am very happy and excited to be able to be a voice for our Indigenous people, not only here in North Carolina, but the country.” 

Graham is a retired educator who spent three decades fighting for the rights of his students to get the education they deserved. He is also a small business owner. For over a decade, Graham represented Robeson County in the North Carolina legislature. He was the only Indigenous person elected to the state’s governing body.

He decided to run for Congress after witnessing the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Graham was one of two Native people in North Carolina’s primary election.

Environmental advocate Crystal Cavalier, Occaneechi Band of the Saponi, ran as a Democrat in a crowded district 4.

Cavalier finished with 1.26 percent of the vote, or 1,104 votes, according to the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

“I've got 1,104 votes, which is huge. That means we touched 1,104 people, my team of five,” Cavalier said. “And we only raised like $20,000. So, I'm over the moon right now.”

In comparison, Valerie Foushee, who won the Democratic nominee for the 4th congressional district, accumulated $2.4 million from super PACs.

Cavalier doesn’t see this as a loss.

“It was not really a lot of just regular people,” she said. “We were actually going up against seasoned politicians, American Idol winners, people who could bring in the big money.”

Despite getting a little over 1 percent of the votes, Cavalier is already planning to run again in the next election.

“I do believe that they're going to redraw our congressional district maps in 2023,” she said. “I will be watching that to see where my home county, Alamance, will fall and wherever it falls, I will run again.”

Crystal Cavalier, Occaneechi Band of the Saponi, is running for Congress in North Carolina. (Photo by Crystal Cavalier for Congress)

Valerie P. Foushee received the most votes with 46 percent. Cavalier finished sixth in an eight-person race.

“And just remember we have 2024 coming up, so I'm going to need your support again,”Cavalier said. “I want to thank the people across Indian country who inspired me, from auntie Deb to Peggy Flanagan, to Advanced Political Native Leadership to Judith Le Blanc, Illuminatives, the Urban Seattle Indian Health Board, and a whole host of other people. I really couldn't have done this without you.”

Cavalier is going to spend the next two years getting ready for the next election.

North Carolina has never elected an Indigenous person to Congress
Charles Graham leads early in North Carolina congressional race

For Graham, the race continues.

His opponent, incumbent David Rouzer, was just endorsed by former president Donald Trump. Rouzer won the republican nomination with 79 percent of the votes that came out to 36,545 votes.

District 7 is a more conservative area but from 1997 to 2015 a Democratic representative, Mike McIntyre, held that seat.

Until Rouzer, challenged the incumbent backed by the GOP through the “Young Guns” program that supplies republican candidates with everything they need to overcome their democratic opponents. He narrowly lost against McIntyre in 2012. He immediately declared that he would run again. McIntyre retired, leaving the seat to Rouzer who won with 60 percent of the votes in 2014.

It will be a tough challenge for Graham to win over Rouzer. The general election will determine how influential or harmful a Donald Trump endorsement is in district 7. During the last presidential election in Columbus and Robeson counties, where Graham overwhelmingly won, Trump won by a staggering percentage.

If Graham can win in November, he'd be the latest Indigenous member of Congress.

The U.S. House of Representatives has five Indigenous voting members. Reps. Tom Cole, Markwayne Mullin, Sharice Davids, Kaiali’i “Kai” Kahele, Markwayne Mullin and Yvette Herrell.

However, that could change, not only with a Graham win, but because Kahele is running for governor of Hawai'i. Mullin is also running for U.S. Senate in Oklahoma. 

Cole, Chickasaw Nation, is the senior Native member of Congress and has served Oklahoma’s 4th District since 2003. Mullin and Herrell are Cherokee, Davids is Ho-Chunk and Kahele is Native Hawaiian.

The general election is Nov. 8. 

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