Minnesota Natives seek offices at all levels

Bemidji City Council candidates Dan Jourdain and Audrey Thayer at the Leech Lake Tribal College graduation. Thayer teaches at the school. (Photo courtesy of Audrey Thayer)

Dalton Walker

UPDATED: Tuesday’s primaries feature at least six Native candidates in city, county and state races; four others have already advanced to November #NativeVote20

Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

A packed January county commission meeting in rural northern Minnesota with racial undertones against refugees caught the attention of many locally and others well beyond the state.

The controversial topic also caught the attention of Christian Taylor-Johnson, a social justice advocate and college student, and motivated him to seek a seat on the nonpartisan Beltrami County Commission.

Tuesday’s primary in Minnesota includes at least six Native candidates seeking office or reelection at the local and state level. Four other Native candidates for state government have already landed on their party’s ticket for the general election.

Minnesota is home to the highest-ranking Native woman elected to executive office in the U.S., Democratic Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, White Earth Nation. The historically blue state has come close to leaning red in recent years in national elections.

Taylor-Johnson, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe descent, lives in Bemidji, Beltrami County’s largest town, and is finishing up his degree at Bemidji State University. He grew up on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation with his dad, an enrolled citizen. The majority of the reservation is just southwest of Beltrami County, and Bemidji is an economic hub for not only his reservation but nearby White Earth and Red Lake.

Taylor-Johnson is one of three commission candidates, including the incumbent, in the primary, and the two top vote-getters move on to the general election. Earlier this year, he closely watched the commission refuse federal refugee resettlement dollars in a 3-2 vote, making it the state’s first county to prohibit resettlement. The decision caught international media attention, and calls for boycotts to the county quickly followed.

The vote “really did put a fuel to my fire, and win or lose, I'm letting these people know that they do not represent my values, they do not speak for me, and that I, as a human being who lives in Beltrami County, who is from the city of Bemidji, I welcome anybody who desires to come live here,” Taylor-Johnson said.

Earlier this summer, he sent a campaign letter to potential voters that included his phone number, and he has received hateful messages regarding his stance on refugee resettlement. The incumbent he’s facing Tuesday has more than 10 years in his commission role and was one of the three to vote against refugee resettlement.

Tim Sumner, Red Lake Ojibwe, has served on the five-person county commission for nearly a decade and is running against one other in his district in the general election. Only districts with more than two candidates are in Tuesday’s primary, and the two with the most votes move onto November.

Sumner has location in his favor. The Red Lake reservation sits almost entirely in his district. Sumner voted for refugee resettlement.

Out of 87 Minnesota counties, Beltrami County is the 20th most populated, with a little more than 47,000 people. The Native population is close to 20 percent in the county, according to census data. The county includes one of the state’s largest reservations in Red Lake.

Race relations have played a role in other candidates seeking office in the county. Four Native candidates are vying for Bemidji City Council seats, including one race that has two Ojibwe women.

Audrey M. Thayer, White Earth Nation, and Laura Fairbanks, Red Lake Ojibwe, are two of five candidates seeking Bemidji’s Ward 1 council seat. The two with the most primary votes advance to the general election, meaning Thayer and Fairbanks could potentially face off in November.

Fairbanks said she’s running for council to unify the community. She has lived in Bemidji for 10 years and is a small-business owner.

“Bemidji is a very diverse community, and there are so many issues in who we are and why we live here,” Fairbanks said. “Being Native American and Anishinaabe Ikwe, I feel like I can go out and share more information and bridge a safer approach to getting to know who we are in a friendly manner. Also, I want to go out and get people involved.”

Thayer, a longtime Bemidji resident and tribal college educator, said a safe community is essential.

“For 30 years, I have been active in bridging our racial disparities, housing and homelessness for our community,” Thayer wrote on her campaign website. “I do believe education is part of the solution. I have advocated to law enforcement an oversight commission of community members that can help with some of our challenges. It is also time to work with our neighboring tribes building a bridge for partnering for additional services and ideas.”

Ernest “Joey” Oppegaard-Peltier, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, is in a three-person race for Bemidji’s Ward 5. He said the Native vote is important in the city election and pointed to former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders taking Beltrami County in the presidential primary earlier this year as an example.

“We saw that the turnout mostly is from the Native American community for that election, and it only makes sense that we have such a strong community that we are part of our local tables so we can represent our community,” Oppegaard-Peltier said.

Bemidji City Council candidate Ernest "Joey" Oppegaard-Peltier. (Photo courtesy of Ernest "Joey" Oppegaard-Peltier)
Bemidji City Council candidate Ernest "Joey" Oppegaard-Peltier. (Photo courtesy of Ernest "Joey" Oppegaard-Peltier)

Dan Jourdain, Red Lake Ojibwe, is running for an at-large Bemidji City Council seat in a special election in November against three other candidates. Jourdain is not in the primary.

If Thayer or Fairbanks and Oppegaard-Peltier win their council seat, along with Jourdain, there will be three Natives on the six-person council that includes the town mayor.

At least one other Native candidate is seeking city office in Minnesota.

Lyz Jaakola, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, is seeking a seat on the Cloquet City Council. If Jaakola qualifies for the general election and wins in November, she’ll join Sheila Lamb, White Earth Nation, Eastern Cherokee, on the council. Jaakola faces two other candidates in the primary.

Of the five Natives running for state office, only one is in Tuesday’s primary.

Heather Keeler, Yankton Sioux, hopes to capture the Democratic primary in state House District 4A and faces one other in the primary. Keeler launched her campaign in February after the incumbent announced retirement. She originally planned to run for school board in her community of Moorhead, Minnesota, but a wave of support pushed her into the state race as a first-time candidate, she said.

Keeler said her platform is focused on human rights, health care, education equity and protecting Mother Earth.

“I believe that we should always take care of people over worrying about profits because when we have a healthy community the rest is bound to be stronger,” Keeler said.

Alan Roy, White Earth Nation, and Mary Kunesh-Podein, Standing Rock Sioux descent, are seeking state Senate seats in District 2 and District 41 and will represent the Democrats on November’s election ballot. Kunesh-Podein is currently serving in the Minnesota House.

Democrat and incumbent Jamie Becker-Finn, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe descent, has advanced to the general election in state House District 42B. Gaylene Spolarich, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, also advanced to the general election in state House District 10B.

All five candidates are endorsed by the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

Wisconsin is also hosting its primary on Tuesday. Tricia Zunker, Ho-Chunk, is running unopposed in the Democratic primary election for Congress.

She will face Republican Tom Tiffany for northern Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional seat in November after losing to him in a May special election.

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In this June 20, 2019, photo, Tricia Zunker speaks at the Marathon County Courthouse in Wausau, Wisconsin. (T'xer Zhon Kha/Wausau Daily Herald via AP, File)

South Dakota held its primary in June and runoffs are scheduled Tuesday. Four Native incumbents in state Senate and state House are listed on the general election ballot, which includes Democrats Red Dawn Foster (Senate, District 27), Troy Heinert (Senate, District 26), Peri Pourier (House, District 27) and Republican Tamra St. John (House, District 1).

Minnesota Native candidates:

  • Heather Keeler, Yankton Sioux, MN House, District 4A
  • Jamie Becker-Finn, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe descent, MN House, District 42B
  • Gaylene Spolarich, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, MN House, District 10B
  • Alan Roy, White Earth Nation, MN Senate, District 2
  • Mary Kunesh-Podein, Standing Rock Sioux descent, MN Senate, District 41
  • Lyz Jaakola, Fond du Lac band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Cloquet City Council
  • Audrey Thayer, White Earth Nation, Bemidji City Council, Ward 1
  • Laura Fairbanks, Red Lake Nation, Bemidji City Council, Ward 1
  • Ernest “Joey” Oppegaard-Peltier, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, Bemidji City Council, Ward 5
  • Christian Taylor-Johnson, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe descent, Beltrami County Commissioner

Wisconsin Native candidates:

  • Tricia Zunker, Ho-Chunk, U.S. House, District 7
  • Amanda White Eagle, Ho-Chunk, WI State Assembly, District 92
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Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter: @daltonwalker Walker is based in Phoenix and enjoys Arizona winters.

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