More Native candidates are running for local office — and winning — in Washington state
Seattle City Council member Debora Juarez said the proposed announcement of her appointment to the board of the region’s public transit system, touting her as the first Native American appointed to the board, made her cringe.
Yes, she’s Blackfeet and grew up on the Puyallup Reservation, where she was awed and inspired by the work of such treaty rights defenders as Ramona Bennett. But Juarez also has a Juris Doctorate from Seattle University School of Law; served as an attorney with one of the biggest law firms in the Pacific Northwest, as a municipal and superior court judge; and directed the state Office of Indian Affairs under two governors.
Her election to the city council in 2015 shattered a racial barrier— she was the first enrolled Native American elected to the council since the city was first established 150 years earlier, a city that had once banned Native Americans from living within its city limits and had set fire to the longhouses that dotted the landscape.
Juarez points out that the issues she’s worked on in her district — a pedestrian and bicycle bridge over Interstate 5 to improve access to local services, schools and work; a new community center; redevelopment of Seattle Center Arena to attract an NHL team to the city and create jobs; cleanup of local streams and salmon habitat; and support for a $15 minimum wage—are issues that are important to everybody, Native and non-Native, in this city of 745,000.
Juarez is not a Native American member of the council; she’s a council member who happens to be Native American, a legal mind with a social justice bent who’s not afraid to break with the majority (Crosscut described Juarez as a "wildcard councilmember" for her independent voting record).
“The danger is thinking we’ll completely align with everything because we’re Native American. That’s a bit annoying,” Juarez told Indian Country Today. “We are just as diverse in our thinking as anyone.”
Juarez, who is seeking reelection to the city council from District 5 on Nov. 5, is one many several Native American candidates in Washington state that are breaking down barriers in voters’ thinking and are gaining ground -- even in communities where Native and non-Native residents have differed strongly on issues such as fishing rights, water rights, and land use.
Among the notable campaigns in the 2019 election (this list was expanded with input from Shoreline City Council member Chris Roberts, Choctaw):
· Labor law attorney Carrie Blackwood, Chicana, is a Democratic Party candidate for state Senate from the 40th Legislative District. She is one of four candidates, including Liz Lovelett, a former Anacortes City Council member who was appointed to the Senate in February to fill a position vacated by resignation.
· Ashley Brown, Nooksack, is unopposed for a position on the City Council in Everson, a city of 2,481 located eight miles south of the U.S./Canadian border.
· Jessie Deardorff, Lummi, is unopposed for a position on the school board in Ferndale, a community that neighbors the Lummi Reservation. Ferndale, population 14,000, is 83.1 percent white, 2.6 percent Native American.
· Seattle School Board member Zachary DeWolf, Chippewa Cree, is one of six candidates for Seattle City Council District 3, where Kshama Sawant – an architect of the city’s $15 minimum wage requirement – is seeking a second term.
· Katherine Festa, Haida, is one of three candidates for City Council Position 7 in Federal Way, a Seattle suburb of 89,000 located within the boundaries of the Puyallup Reservation. Festa is a housing and outreach coordinator for the King County Department of Community and Human Services.
· Chandra Hampson, Winnebago/White Earth Chippewa, is one of three candidates for Seattle School Board, District 3. She is an economic development consultant and non-profit manager.
· Meghan Jernigan. Choctaw, is challenging the incumbent for the School Board District 1 position in Shoreline, a suburb of Seattle. Jernigan is a public health researcher at Washington State University.
· Cindy Webster-Martinson, Suquamish, has two challengers in her bid for reelection to the North Kitsap School Board. Webster-Martinson, an educator and former member of the Suquamish Tribal Council, is the first Native American elected to non-tribal office in Kitsap County – ironic, considering the Port Gamble S’Klallam and Suquamish reservations are located here and the county is named for a prominent 19th century of the Suquamish people.
· Steve Oliver, Lummi, is unopposed for a fourth term as Whatcom County treasurer, where he directs an office that handles $1.5 billion in financial transactions annually for local taxing districts; bills and collects more than $250 million in property taxes each year; and manages a $250 million county investment pool.
· Environmental and social justice advocate Christopher Peguero, Menominee, is one of seven candidates for Seattle City Council, District 2.
· Jenny Slagle, Yakama, is one of three candidates for Spokane School Board, Position 2. She is director of community service for a non-profiot that connects people to health care. She is former communications manager for The NATIVE Project.
· Kimber LyAnn Starr, Cherokee, is one of three candidates for City Council Position 4 in Fircrest, a Tacoma suburb of 6,500 people.
· Attorney Chris Stearns, Navajo, is unopposed for a position on the City Council in Auburn, a city of 70,180 located south of Seattle. He is president of the Seattle Indian Health Board and former chairman of the Washington State Gambling Commission and the Seattle Human Rights Commission.
· Teresa Taylor, Lummi, has one challenger in her bid for a second term on the Ferndale City Council. She is economic development project manager for the Lummi Indian Business Council and a director of YWCA Bellingham.
· Edmonds School Board president Diana White, Potawatomi, is one of two candidates for City Council Position 6 in Edmonds, a city of 40,000 located 15 miles north of Seattle.
· Two Swinomish women are candidates for the same school board position in La Conner, across the channel from the Swinomish Reservation: Janie Beasley, who is seeking reelection; and Marlys Baker, community health representative for the Swinomish Tribe’s health department.
First Peoples = First Community Leaders
To Tim Ballew II, it only makes sense that indigenous people would serve in elective office outside of Indian Country. Before contact, this was all Indian land, and all indigenous nations and communities had systems of leadership. Today’s Native candidates are continuing centuries of local leadership.
“Community leaders in our area have always been from the tribes,” Ballew said.
Ballew is the youthful former chairman of the Lummi Nation who served on the Whatcom County Council in 2018, completing a term that had been vacated by resignation. He brought some serious credentials to the County Council: In addition to serving as chairman of a Native Nation for five years, he had served on the Lummi Nation school board, the Whatcom Council of Governments policy board, the U.S. Department of Transportation national rulemaking board, and a technical advisory committee to the Washington state Department of Revenue.
He led the fight to end fish farming here after an aquaculture company’s net pen released several thousand Atlantic salmon into local waters, threatening already beleaguered native salmon populations. He worked to block the opening of a coal shipping terminal at Cherry Point, citing potential risks to human health and the marine environment. And he supported a state court decision protecting water resources; the court ruled that water is not legally available for new development if a new well would impact a protected river or stream or an existing senior water right.
“This doesn’t mean that new growth must stop,” Ballew wrote in The Bellingham Herald. “It just means that we need to assess how much water there is and how much water is spoken for, before we allocate it. We need to look a little closer at the consequences of our actions before we act.”
He added, “If you want to avoid bouncing a check, you balance your checkbook before making a purchase. In water management – much like our personal finances – the best way to avoid water bankruptcy is to look at how much water is legally and physically available before doling it out.”
Those issues – protecting human health, the marine environment and water resources – are issues that benefit the entire community – indigenous and non-Native people alike, Ballew said.
Building bridges of understanding
State Sen. John McCoy, Tulalip, has seen positive changes in legislators’ understanding of sovereignty and the issues of common interest in Washington state and the Native Nations therein. But there’s still a long way to go, he said.
McCoy has served on committees that address issues related to economic development, education, environment and housing. Among other recent accomplishments, he’s worked to improve access to mental health services for students struggling with behavioral and emotional issues, reduce the potential for oil spills in the marine environment, expand access to broadband, and prevent workplace discrimination against immigrants.
He won legislative support for laws authorizing the state to cede jurisdiction over criminal and civil matters on Native American lands to federal and Native governments, and requiring the incorporation of Native American culture and history in public school curriculum. But he hit stumbling blocks on efforts to get the state to recognize the Tulalip Tribes’ municipality of Quil Ceda Village and return to the village a share of sales tax revenue generated there, as it does with other municipalities (Tulalip’s lawsuit challenging the state’s taxation of businesses on Indian-owned land will likely go to the U.S. Supreme Court).
He also works with individual legislators on overcoming communication stumbling blocks, such as word usage. “For example, how what they said could be taken in another vein,” he said. “It’s never deliberate, but communication skills are limited. I try to create teaching moments so they don’t feel bad asking the question. I wish they would ask.”
Meanwhile, at home and in Olympia he’s built bipartisan and multicultural support. “People stop me and say, ‘I like what you’re doing. Keep it up,’” he said, adding, “The problems in Indian country are the same in any community. If I can resolve it in Indian country, I should be able to resolve it in the community. And if I can resolve it in the community, I should be able to resolve it in Indian country.”
On the state level and beyond
In addition to McCoy, two other Native Americans serve in the state legislature – both from the same legislative district: Rep. Jeff Morris, Tsimshian; and Rep. Debra Lekanoff, Tlingit/Aleut. Morris formerly served as House speaker pro tem and chairman of committees addressing communications, economic development, energy, environment, technology, and transportation. Lekanoff, a first-term representative, is vice chair of the Environment and Energy Committee and co-chair of the Water Supply Task Force, charged with reviewing surface water and groundwater needs and allocation for agricultural uses, household uses and instream flows that support fish habitat.
Denise Juneau, Mandan Hidatsa, is superintendent of Seattle Public Schools. She was formerly Montana’s superintendent of public instruction and ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Big Sky Country in 2014. Her first act as superintendent in Seattle was “to build a longer table at Seattle Public Schools – inviting new voices and perspectives to the conversation and intentionally engaging with families and students the district has underserved,” the district website states, “From this feedback, a strategic plan was developed and will guide the district forward for the next five years.”
Maia Bellon, Mescalero Apache, is the director of the state’s Department of Ecology, the first Native American to serve in a cabinet-level position in Washington. A former assistant state attorney general and water resources manager, she has built partnerships — businesses and conservation groups, agricultural producers, government agencies and Native Nations — to achieve environmental cleanup, preservation, and stewardship.
“We all need clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and clean land where we live, play, and do business,” she wrote on her website. “We may have our differences on how to sustain a healthy environment in harmony with a strong economy, but we are finding creative ways to work together because we have a shared vision. That shared vision is quality of life — the quality of life for today and all the tomorrows that our future generations deserve."
Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, is vice chairman of the U.S. Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. He helped guide the Suquamish Tribe as it developed into a regional economic development powerhouse and one of the largest employers in Kitsap County, a peninsula west of Seattle.
Julie Johnson, Lummi, Yvette Joseph, Colville/Cayuse, and Matthew Tomaskin, Yakama, serve on the executive committee of the Washington State Democratic Party. Johnson is chairwoman of the party’s Native American Caucus and co-chair of the Native Vote Committee of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. Joseph, a candidate for state House of Representatives in 2004, worked for the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in the 1990s, served on President Clinton’s Health Care Reform Task Force, and is working to expand access to dental care. Tomaskin, a 2012 candidate for state House of Representatives, is policy analyst and legislative liaison for the Yakama Nation Tribal Council.
Native American leaders in Washington state can be found on both sides of the aisle. Prominent Republicans include former state Sen. Dino Rossi, Tlingit, who had a noted stint as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and lost the race for governor in a recount in 2004; and former state Rep. Jay Rodne, Lake Superior Chippewa, a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and registered consultant and lobbyist for the Kingdom of Cambodia.
McCoy hopes more Native Americans will run for legislature (there has been as many as five in one session). He said serving in local government is a good start. “Run for school board or city council and see if you like public service, then grow from there.”
Richard Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is an ICT correspondent reporting from Anacortes, Washington