Eyes on the Senate
Richard Arlin Walker
Special to Indian Country Today
There are 13 Native candidates for the U.S. House and three more for the U.S. Senate in 2020. Should they prevail in their primaries and in the Nov. 3 general election, there could be more Native Americans in Congress than at any time in history.
Native candidates for Congress are on primary ballots that will be counted Tuesday in Idaho and New Mexico, on June 30 in Oklahoma and Utah, Aug. 4 in Kansas, Aug. 8 in Hawaii, and Aug. 11 in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Among the candidates for Congress, Elisa Martinez, Navajo, and Gavin Clarkson, Choctaw, are running for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate from New Mexico. In Hawai’i, state Sen. Kaiali’i Kahele, Democrat and Republican Joe Akana are candidates for the U.S. Senate. Republican Markwayne Mullin, Cherokee, of Oklahoma is seeking a fifth term representing his state’s 2nd District. His Democratic Party challenger is Danyell Lanier, Cherokee, a Navy veteran.
A campaign of note in Montana, which also has its primary Tuesday: State Rep. Shane Morigeau, Salish Kootenai, is one of two candidates for the Democratic nomination for state auditor in the June 2 primary. The other is consumer advocate Mike Winsor, a former assistant state attorney general. One of them will face the Republican nominee in the general election: either Troy Downing, a U.S. Air Force veteran and real estate investor; Nelly Nicol, an insurance professional; or Scott Tuxbury, an insurance professional. Also seeking the office is Libertarian Roger Roots, a criminologist and civil liberties activist.
And in Washington, state Supreme Court Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis, Isleta Pueblo, is seeking election to a full term on the state’s high court. She was appointed to a vacancy in January by Gov. Jay Inslee. She is being challenged by Dave Larson, a Municipal Court judge in the Seattle suburb of Federal Way.
All told, at least 90 Indigenous candidates are seeking election to 78 positions — local, state and federal — in 15 states.
Montana has the largest number of Native candidates with 25; New Mexico is second with 14. Sixty-eight candidates are Democrats, 14 are Republicans, others are non-partisan.
Some candidates are political veterans, like Tom Cole, Chickasaw, seeking a 10th term representing Oklahoma’s 4th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Others are political newcomers, like Amanda Rae Funaro, Choctaw, one of three candidates for a four-year term on the Board of County Commissioners in Jefferson County, Washington.
But they all have this in common: A desire to give voice to a demographic that has long been underrepresented in government, and to bring their diversity of experience and ideas to the political process.
“Representation matters,” Montoya-Lewis, the Washington state Supreme Court justice seeking a full term, said on her campaign website. “Having a voice at the table — and on the bench — for Native American communities, and other underrepresented communities, will ensure a thoughtful review of the issues at hand, now and in the future.”
The local and state offices are important. But the campaigns for Congress — which currently has more Native Americans than at any one time in U.S. history — will get the most national attention as 11 more Indigenous candidates seek to join the U.S. House or Senate.
U.S. Senate candidate Paulette Jordan, Coeur d’Alene, of Idaho believes Indigenous candidates can build bipartisanship in government because, while they may be from different political parties, they share the same values.
Jordan is a Democrat who was mentored by U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Cheyenne, who served in Congress from 1987-1995 as a Democrat and from then until 2005 as a Republican.
Campbell now leads Nighthorse Consultants, representing clients on issues related to Native affairs, energy, gaming, natural resources and transportation.
“When he and I would be talking with Democrats and Republicans, working with folks on both sides of the aisle, he would always say to others — especially in his own peer base, who would try to push you to one side or the other — he would say, ‘At the end of the day, we all share the same values because we are tribal people. We’re non-partisan. We want to work together for the best interests of everyone,’ ” Jordan told Indian Country Today.
“I really appreciated that about him because it pointed out that, as tribal people, we’re really not Democrats or Republicans, we’re about what’s right for the people, what’s right for nature, what’s right for the environment. And we’re always looking toward the future. ... We just have a different approach to the solutions.”
Jordan said Indigenous values will also help heal the nation.
“Why [Indigenous] representation matters most is because we have a value system that caters to a way of life that most people often haven’t heard from because we haven’t been as prevalent in the halls of Congress,” she said. “We haven’t heard or seen a lot of our voices in these other spaces politically for some time, and because of that we’re not able to project our voice or be part of the conversations to defend and protect nature, the environment and keep the balance of humanity.
“The culture here was much different prior to colonization. There was balance and equality — an egalitarian-type of society where men and women are equal. And, of course, even nature had its place among our system. So, I think once we are able to get more involved in this political scene and show representation and the voices of our people and what we are truly about, the people will start to see a better understanding as to how we can come back together again — how we can bring the country back together again — and how we can start to implement some of these values and strategies of our people to ensure not only that nature comes back to its rightful place at the table, but that we are protecting the future for our children’s children.”
In Hawai’i: Two Native Hawaiians are among a field of 10 candidates seeking to represent the state’s 2nd District in the U.S. House of Representatives. They are state Sen. Kaiali’i Kahele, Democrat; and Republican Joe Akana, a business coach and former U.S. Air Force intelligence analyst.
Others seeking the Democratic nomination as of May 27: Brian Evans, an actor and singer who ran for Congress in 2004, 2014 and 2018; and Noelle Famera, an alternative-energy proponent.
Others seeking the Republican nomination: Karla Gottschalk, an international law attorney; David Hamman, a building contractor; Nicholas T. Love; and Raymond S. Quel.
Also on the ballot in November: non-partisan candidate Byron McCorriston, a coin merchant; and Libertarian Michelle Rose Tippens, who ran unsuccessfully for state House in 2016 and Congress in 2018.
The field could get larger – another 12 people have taken out candidacy papers and have until June 2 to file them. The primary election is Aug. 8. The winner in November will succeed Tulsi Gabbard, who chose not to seek reelection so she could focus on her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Idaho: Paulette Jordan, who served on the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council and in the Idaho House of Representatives, is seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. On June 2, voters will decide whether she or James Vandermaas, a retired firefighter and paramedic and law enforcement officer, advances to the general election to face U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, Republican, who’s seeking a third term; Independent candidate Natalie M. Fleming, a software developer; and Constitution Party candidate Ray J. Writz, a janitorial service owner who ran for legislature in 2010, 2012 and 2014 and for U.S. Senate in 2016.
Rudy Soto, Shoshone-Bannock, is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Idaho’s 1st District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Soto – a National Guard veteran, former policy analyst, and legislative director for the National Indian Gaming Association -- faces Staniela Nikolova, a law student at University of Idaho and 2016 candidate for the 1st Congressional District seat.
The Democratic nominee will face the Republican nominee – either U.S. Rep. Ross Fulcher, who is seeking a second term, or small-business owner Nicholas Jones – and Libertarian candidate Joe Evans, a cloud engineer and Army veteran who did tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Kansas: Democrat Sharice Davids, Shawnee, is seeking a second term representing her state’s 3rd District in the U.S. House. She is the lone Democrat in the election and will face one of the following Republicans in November: Amanda L. Adkins, vice president of a healthcare and information technology company; Mike Beehler, civil engineer; Adrienne Vallejo Foster, former mayor of Roeland Park and executive director of the state Hispanic and Latino American Affairs Commission; or Sara Hart Weir, a non-profit CEO who’s launched workforce development and healthcare access initiatives.
Minnesota: Democrat Gaylene Spolarich, Turtle Mountain Chippewa, was expected to file candidacy papers for the U.S. House from Minnesota’s 8th District. The filing deadline is June 2; the primary is Aug. 11. Neither she nor the incumbent, Rep. Pete Stauber, Republican, had filed as of May 27, although both have campaign websites.
Spolarich is a City Council member in Palisade, Minnesota, and leads education programs for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.
New Mexico: Republicans Elisa Martinez, Navajo, and Gavin Clarkson, Choctaw, are running for their party’s nomination for U.S. Senate in the June 2 primary. A third Republican candidate is Mark Ronchetti, a television weatherman. The winner of the primary will face Democrat Ben Ray Lujan, who’s finishing his sixth term in the U.S. House of Representatives; and Libertarian Bob Walsh, a retired mathematician. The winner in November will succeed Tom Udall, who is retiring.
Martinez is founder of New Mexico Alliance for Life and led a successful effort, with bipartisan support, to ban partial-birth abortions in the state. She serves on the White House Coalition for Hispanic Engagement. Martinez won the state’s convention support and will be the first candidate on that party’s ballot.
Clarkson was the GOP nominee two years ago for New Mexico Secretary of State. He served at the Interior Department early in the Trump administration as a deputy assistant secretary for Indian affairs. He has raised the most money of any candidate in the race, topping $1.6 million in contributions.
Democrat Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, is seeking a second term representing her state’s 1st District in the U.S. House. She will face one of three Republicans in November: retired police officer Michelle Garcia Holmes, business Brett Kokinadis, or attorney Jared Vanderdussen.
Former state Rep. Yvette Herrell, Cherokee, is one of three Republican candidates for the U.S. House from her state’s 2nd District. The others are Claire Chase, director of government relations for an energy company; and Chris Mathys, a real estate broker who served on a city council in California in 1997-2001. The winner will advance to the general election and will face U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, Democrat, who is seeking a second term; and Independent Steve Jones, a business consultant and CPA.
Small defeated Herrell in 2018 with 50.9 percent to 49.1 percent of the vote.
Businesswoman Karen Bedonie, Navajo, is one of five Republicans seeking nomination to the U.S. House seat from the 3rd District. The others are Audra Brown, an educator, rancher and writer; realtor Anise Golden Morper, attorney Alexis Johnson, and former Santa Fe County Commissioner Harry Montoya.
The Republican nominee will face one of the following Democrats: former New Mexico Deputy Secretary of State John Blair, attorney Teresa Leger Fernandez, former state legislator Laura Montoya, former CIA officer Valerie Plame, state Rep. Joseph Sanchez, Santa Fe County District Attorney Marco Serna, and environmental activist Kyle Tisdel.
Oklahoma: Republican Markwayne Mullin, Cherokee, is seeking a fifth term representing his state’s 2nd District. He faces 2016 State House candidate Rhonda Hopkins and state Sen. Joseph Silk in the June 30 primary.
The winner will face Democrat Danyell Lanier, Cherokee, and Libertarian Richie Castaldo in the general election. Lanier is a Navy veteran; Castaldo is a pastor.
Republican Tom Cole, Chickasaw, is seeking election to a 10th term representing Oklahoma 4th District in the U.S. House. His challengers for the nomination are Dr. Gilbert O. Sanders, a retired Army and Public Health Service officer; Trevor Sipes, a pharmacist and real estate broker; and James Taylor, a pastor and middle school history teacher. Seeking the Democratic nomination are John D. Argo, metalworker; Mary Brannon, public school teacher and counselor; and David R. Slemmons, actor and human rights activist. Libertarian Bob White is also seeking election to the 4th District House seat.
Utah: Darren Parry, a Northwestern Band of Shoshone council member, is running for the Democratic nomination for Utah’s 1st District seat in the U.S. House. He or fellow Democrat Jamie Cheek, president-elect of the Utah Rehabilitation Association, will face one of the following Republicans in the general election: former state representative Kerry W. Gibson, former U.S. State Department foreign service officer Blake David Moore, Davis County Commissioner Bob Stevenson, or Kaysville Mayor Katie Witt.
Wisconsin: Democrat Tricia Zunker, Ho-Chunk, is challenging U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany, Republican, for the 7th District seat in the U.S. House. Tiffany, a former state assemblyman, defeated Zunker in the May 12 special election to serve the remaining seven months in the term vacated by Sean Duffy, who resigned for family reasons.
Zunker is president of the Wausau School Board and is serving a second term as associate justice of the Ho-Chunk Supreme Court. Her challenge in the general election is clear: Get out the vote. Tiffany received 57.2 percent of the vote to Zunker’s 42.8 percent in the special election.
Indian Country Today’s current list of candidates for elected office.
Other political news of note:
- An estimated 81 Native Americans are serving as legislators in 21 states, according to the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators. The caucus is chaired by New Mexico state Sen. Benny Shendo, Jemez Pueblo.
- Thirty-three Native Americans will serve as delegates to the Washington State Democratic Party Convention, June 12-14 in Tacoma, according to Julie Johnson, Lummi, chair of the state party’s Native American Caucus.
- State convention delegates were elected at legislative district caucuses. Those delegates will vote on the state party’s platform and elect delegates to the Democratic National Convention, Aug. 17–20 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (it may be virtual because of the COVID-19 pandemic).
- Washington state will send 107 delegates to the national convention; 89 delegates will be pledged, their votes for the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee allocated according to the results of the primary.
- Former Tulalip Tribes Vice Chairwoman Deborah Parker is a board member of Our Revolution, which spun off from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. The organization is campaigning for Medicare for All; creation of a clean-energy economy powered by solar, wind and other renewable sources; a $15 federal minimum wage; cancellation of student debt; immigration reform; criminal justice reform; and ending U.S. involvement in foreign wars.
Parker campaigned successfully in 2013 to add a provision to the Violence Against Women Act giving tribal courts jurisdiction over cases of violence against women committed by non-Native Americans on tribal land.
- Former Tulalip Tribes Council member Theresa Sheldon is Native American Political Director for the Democratic National Committee. She is tasked with implementing a comprehensive outreach and engagement strategy for Indian Country. “Diversity and inclusion have always been the strength of our Democratic coalition,” DNC Chairman Tom Perez said of Sheldon’s appointment. “Now more than ever, we will need a strong team that can harness the energy and excitement in our base communities to elect Democrats up and down the ballot.”
Sheldon earned an undergraduate degree in Law and Diversity from Western Washington University and served for seven years as a legislative policy analyst for the Tulalip Tribes. She co-chairs the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians’ Native Vote Committee.
Richard Arlin Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is an Indian Country Today contributor living in Anacortes, Washington.