Native campaigns: The untold story of the presidential 2020 election
There was something different about this election cycle. In a word: More.
There were more tribal nations’ policy plans from presidential candidates.
More high level Native voices.
And more actual campaign workers.
Campaign staffers and volunteers are the unsung heroes running campaign machines. They bring their best to create a strategy, inject energy, time, trust, and even money. Behind the wins and losses in every campaign are hundreds and thousands of people getting paid or who volunteer.
And there have never been so many Native folks doing just that.
“I'm glad to see my friends in Indian country landing strategic positions with the Democratic Party campaigns for President. The result has caused most, (if not all) to release position papers demonstrating their commitment to Indian country if elected,” wrote Jim Gray on Facebook recently. He's the former chief of the Osage Nation and former co-publisher of Native American Times. “In the past, Native people were used as props for photo opportunities (or simply ignored), now we're drafting policies and educating the campaigns.”
It’s important to note there is no data about Native volunteers and workers on campaigns. Only resumes and stories exist.
Holly Cook, Red Lake Band of Ojibwe, served as the director for Native American affairs for the Democratic National Committee from 1999 to early 2001. She said Democratic candidates are “reaching out to Indian Country more than a year out from the election and in meaningful ways.”
“Campaigns were much more likely to think of it in June of the election year,” she said in January. “We had several and I actually lost count, which is a great thing, of how many have put forth policy positions by the time they got to Iowa [at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum] or by the time the [Democratic National Committee] did the tribal leader roundtables at a couple of the debates.”
Cook worked on a few presidential campaigns in the last 20 years.
Attorney Keith Harper, who chaired Pete Buttigieg’s Native American policy committee, believes people from Indian Country have “ratcheted up their participation” in presidential campaigns over the years.
“If you look back in the early 90s or 80s, there was some participation but it was limited by a handful of people,” he said. Harper, Cherokee, thinks that increased in the 1990s through the Clinton years and boomed in the Barack Obama campaign.
Policy statements were developed in early 2007 and Obama took the time to meet with tribal leaders separately, Harper said. “That was a game changer.”
He was part of the campaign with a handful of Native people like Suzan Harjo, Nicole Willis, Kimberly Teehee, and more.
Cook said: “And so really kudos to a lot of folks in Indian Country who done this work for so long to see 2020 or 2019, the 2020 campaign to see a lot of those efforts really come to fruition.”
There is a long history. Suzan Harjo, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, worked on the Jimmy Carter, John Kerry, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama campaigns.
And Laura Harris, Comanche, helped Jesse Jackson’s run for president in 1984 and Bill Richardson’s campaign in the 2008 election.
“Campaigning is hard work and it’s for young folks,” Harris said with a laugh over the phone. But “it’s so rewarding.”
Lorraine Basch agreed that campaigns are rough. She worked for the Kamala Harris’ campaign at the Baltimore office where she was a human resources associate and executive assistant to the chief operating officer. She is Puyallup, Coeur d’Alene, and Clatsop-Nehalem.
“It’s very long hours,” she said.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign named Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, as her co-chair and PaaWee Rivera, Pueblo of Pojoaque, was the Colorado state director. Rivera formerly held the Democratic National Committee‘s director of Native American and rural engagement position.
And two tribal citizens sat on the Native American policy committee for the Pete Buttigieg campaign.
Before the holidays, Sen. Bernie Sanders sent out an email announcing two Native people would chair his campaign in their states. Laurie Tom, chairman of the Yerington Paiute Tribe, in Nevada, and former Arizona State Representative Wenona Benally Baldenegro, Navajo. Eric Descheenie, Diné, holds the national tribal advisor position for the entire Sanders campaign.
Other campaigns brought in Indigenous endorsements and support, sometimes mentioning these individual looked over the policy plans.
This is tremendous "recognition of the voice that Indian Country has found and engaging with presidential campaigns," Cook said. "We have folks out there now who’ve gone through the pipeline. They have the experience, they have the policy chops, they have the familiarity with Indian Country because no one knows our tribes like we do. And no one knows Indian Country like Indian people.”
Basics: The difference in campaign roles
There's a difference between the impact of a campaign volunteer and a paid campaign staffer, including the role as a volunteer, said political consultant Nicole Willis, who owns a political strategy firm.
Willis volunteered on Buttiegieg’s Native American policy committee and women’s policy committee. Buttigieg dropped out of the race this past Sunday.
Campaigns have field offices and political offices. The field operation consists of getting out the vote, keeping track of volunteers and supporters, while getting endorsements from elected officials and reaching out to affinity groups is part of the political office.
At the field office level volunteer spend their days making phone calls, knocking on doors or sending emails. “Those folks have an impact on the campaign but at the most grassroots level,” she said.
Willis describes the policy committees as “influencers.” These are people who hold important positions or who are experts in a certain area. Volunteers often do this work because it's a pool that winning candidates draw on later for appointments.
Willis helped shape the policy platform for Sanders in 2016.
However, it's the campaign staff she said who has the “biggest impact on the campaign.”
Why? It’s their duty and they have more presence. They need to make sure that “any policy or any ideas that at any given candidate has that are going to benefit Indian country trickle down into the actual voters,” said Willis, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
A staffer has access to the campaign's communication networks unlike volunteers.
“But when you have a senior level tribal desk staffed by a Native person who understands issues affecting Indian Country and can pitch the very top decision makers, the campaign manager scheduler, that is the person that gets the candidate in front of Indian Country and gets them talking about Indian Country,” Willis said.
Theresa Sheldon, Tulalip and currently the Native American political director of the Democratic National Committee, echoed Willis.
“Every single campaign should absolutely be hiring and paying a Native American at a high level. So they should have Native American political directors,” Sheldon said. “They shouldn't be supervisors, they shouldn't be low level. They need to be at the utmost, highest pay grade and highest level of involvement because these treaties are the ‘supreme Law of the Land.’”
The right-hand or write hand women?
Native people know when a Native person, or a “scholarly non-Native who thinks they get it” writes statements or speeches for candidates, Sheldon said a few blocks away from the Democratic National Committee office in Washington, D.C.
“We feel it,” Sheldon said. “And when we read a candidate's statement on Native issues, you know whether or not that it had tribal influence or not, just by the way it's worded and how they talk about sovereignty, how they talk about treaty rights. Because we live and breathe it. That’s everyday for us. That’s an everyday thing, no one has to remind us, ‘Remember to protect your treaty or protect your rights.’ We’re born with that.”
Laura Harris grew up in a world of campaigns. Her father, Fred Harris, won a Senate seat in 1964. So it was natural for her to work on campaigns.
In 1984 she worked for Jesse Jackson. Then Sen. Fred Harris' campaign. And was the Midwestern States political director for Bill Richardson in 2008 campaign and then joined Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004.
“It’s wonderful to work for a candidate who already gets Indian issues,” she said referring to Richardson who worked with 23 tribes in New Mexico and was the chair of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Native American Affairs in the 1990s. “So being with him was basically playing with the language. We talked about some of the questions anticipated.”
She recalls having a big influence on Jackson and Richardson’s campaign because she would write their speeches on different Native issues.
“When you hear a candidate say the words you wrote, it’s pretty powerful,” she said. It wasn’t so much for Dean because there were very few national Native political operations. Her opportunity to get really involved came up when they traveled to high Native population states like New Mexico, Montana, or Alaska.
Even in those times, Laura said, “You're getting first hand experience working on the campaign and providing invaluable insight to other staff members.”
Harjo was on the Carter campaign when he ran against Fred Harris, the husband of LaDonna Harris, in 1976. Both candidates were one of 17 Democrats who ran for president after Richard Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford took over.
Harjo didn’t know of anyone working for those campaigns back in the day, but she was sure there were people. She remembered that Arizona Rep. Morris “Mo” Udall had Native people working for him, but didn’t know who exactly.
She enjoyed the campaign life. “I was happy to do it,” she said. "What an opportunity and I felt like an annoying girl in third grade.”
She already knew tribal leadership after working at the National Congress of American Indians and the Native American Rights Fund. Her goal was to work on the policy for health but she started getting “the Indian stuff.”
Harjo wanted candidate Carter to have the “best possible agenda for Indian Country.”
She prepared statements and coached him on the policies tribal citizens and tribal leaders would bring up. Of course, he agreed to be scripted and Harjo stood by his side if more policy feedback was needed.
The result was Carter's advocacy and enactment of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the American Indian Land Claim Settlement Act, The Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act, the Eastern Land Claim Settlement Act, and successful federal Indian policies.
One of Harjo’s biggest accomplishments was to “script both sides,” she said. She helped candidate Carter frame his conversation with tribal leaders in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and she helped the same tribal leaders ask the smartest questions to the candidate.
That was one week before the general election.
Bringing back humanity to politics
Amanda Finney, Lumbee, moved across the country for her campaign work.
She was living in Seattle when she received a text from a friend, who worked with her on the Hilary Clinton campaign, saying, “Hey, what would it take to get you to move to New York and do a presidential campaign again?”
So she packed up her stuff and moved to New York City where she was the national deputy women’s outreach director for Mike Bloomberg’s campaign.
Finney recalled with excitement and memories of campaign chaos, “Oh God. Here we go.” She knew what she was getting herself into. She helped two campaigns before, Hilary Clinton and Obama in 2012.
She was not alone. Team Bloomberg hired Sarah Gray, Cherokee, as state press secretary in Oklahoma.
However, with three campaigns under her belt, her first campaign is one she’ll never forget because the once-in-a-lifetime candidate Obama “set the stage” for her.
She took off her senior year of college to get involved. Finney drove from North Carolina to Virginia and lived in supporter housing. “So I lived in like a random person’s house with some other staffers,” she said.
“No campaign will ever be like that ever again. Because it was such a movement and so inspiring, especially for young people. I mean all of, our whole room was under 30,” she said. “It was a different time. Definitely a different time and a different stage.”
It was also “so impactful” because she was young and it brought humanity back to politics for her. She said it is one thing to see people about policy and issues on TV, but it’s another thing to be standing at a woman’s door where she’s telling you about her healthcare, and her bills.
“It’s like a whole different world and it really makes it personable,” she said. “It really has dictated why I like politics because at the end of the day it’s all about people.”
‘A full-time super volunteer’
Katie Fire Thunder, Oglala Lakota, volunteered for California Sen. Kamala Harris’ campaign last fall.
The 19-year-old was waiting for her dad to fly in from Montana so they could drive back. She lived in Las Vegas, Nevada, since September. It was a few days after Kamala Harris announced the end of her presidential campaign.
The high-school graduate chose to take a gap year after receiving her diploma from Bozeman High School. She was unsure of her post-graduation plans in the spring.
But with confidence, she said, “My grandma is Cecelia Fire Thunder, the first female tribal leader of the Oglala Sioux” followed by, “I always grew up around politics.”
A Kamala Harris campaign representative visited Katie Fire Thunder’s high school and talked about students on the campaign.
“I didn’t know working on campaigns was even a thing that people my age could do,” Kate Fire Thunder said. “All these kids in my school were working on her campaign and I thought maybe that is something I wanted to do.”
She first saw Kamala Harris during Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing last year. “I see this woman really grill this guy and thought, ‘Wow, this is what we need in our government today.’”
At her high school graduation, Cecelia Fire Thunder asked her granddaughter what she wanted to do. Katie Fire Thunder told her she was thinking about working for Kamala Harris’ campaign.
“I remember her smiling and nodding,” Katie Fire Thunder said. “I felt that was really validating.”
The young graduate traveled to Denver with her mom and sister in the summer to hopefully meet Kamala Harris.
“I brought a paper I had shared, wrote about Henny Scott. I wanted to bring that to her,” she said. During her last year of high school, she focused on her missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls project where she learned about Savanna’s Act and Henny Scott.
“I was the last person to meet her,” she said. “I remember I started crying.”
While waiting for Kamala Harris, Katie Fire Thunder said she thought, “Wow. This woman can do something. For so long I felt powerless and felt no one was able to do anything for me.”
When the moment came, she couldn’t fully talk through her tears but managed to tell Harris: “My people are dying.”
The presidential candidate held her hand, looked her in the eye, and said, “I know.”
She took Fire Thunder’s paper with her.
Fire Thunder kept in touch with Emmy Ruiz, one of Kamala Harris’ advisors.
The 19-year-old wrote Ruiz about the Native forum because she knew Harris had to be involved and didn’t know if she was part of it.
Once Katie Fire Thunder expressed interest in helping with the campaign, Ruiz asked if she could go to Las Vegas if they provided housing.
“At that point, what the heck is happening,” Katie Fire Thunder said. “I talked it over with my family. It was the best thing to do and spend the gap year and being on the front lines and for me to fight for my people.”
From September to November, Katie Fire Thunder worked with the Nevada political office and field office. The political offices work with spreadsheets, different constituent groups, and figure out how to reach out to people. She also helped with the field office in reaching out to constituents via email, calls, and going door to door.
“I was a full-time super volunteer,” she said. “I helped where I was needed.”
Katie Fire Thunder knew nothing of the campaign inner workings. She learned how campaigns worked, how government officials got elected, and how the caucuses function.
“It was organizers in training really,” she said with a laugh. She thought it would be helpful to have campaign training in Indian Country.
Kalyn Free created INDNs List, which closed in 2010. It was an organization that recruited and elected Native people to public offices. Free told the City Sentinel that the organization “helped American Indians win 63 elections,” or 70 percent of the races and she “helped an American Indian woman win statewide office in Montana.”
Free also mentioned that she wanted to create something that Native children can see themselves becoming. There is a clear path of influence. Katie Fire Thunder at 19 already has campaign experience. And she watched as her grandmother, former Oglala Lakota President Cecelia Fire Thunder, walked that way. In February, Cecelia Fire Thunder gifted Harris a star quilt at the 25th National Indian Women’s “Supporting Each Other” Honoring Lunch in Washington, D.C. Cecelia gushed about how her granddaughter had volunteered for Harris’ campaign.
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When Fire Thunder joined the Nevada office, she found that she wasn’t the only “brown kid in room” like Montana. The Nevada team was diverse.
It was even more important to be the only Indigenous person in the Nevada office (that she knew of) because the political director had her review Kamala Harris’ policy plan for Indian Country. The political director also asked Katie Fire Thunder if she knew of anyone who could look over the policy plan.
“I was able to reach out to friends and family in Nevada and different families, and ask them would this get something done,” she said. “That was super powerful and impacting.”
Tears hit the campaign staff when Harris announced the end to her presidential race.
Katie Fire Thunder was on her way to the airport in Montana after Thanksgiving. “My grandma sent me a link to the New York Times,” she said. “It was heartbreaking.”
She’s not sure what her plans are now but studying political science at Montana State University is an option. She’s considering getting more involved in the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls initiatives in the state.
“I want to work for some people there and continue to fight for families that have been affected,” she said. “I’m not sure if another presidential campaign is in my pathway right now.”
Campaigns aren’t always pretty. There is always chaos, uncertainty, and frustration.
Ashley Nicole McCray, Absentee Shawnee and Oglala Lakota, helped Sanders’ campaign four years ago. In 2018 she ran and won the Democratic nomination for Oklahoma corporate commissioner.
A little more than a year ago, McCray met the state director Josh Visnaw. He was trying to recruit her and offered her a full-time paid position where she’d work six days a week for 50 hours and make approximately $40,000.
McCray said he told her she would try to get her on by August. It was a “maybe” by August and then that went until October.
McCray made it clear she had volunteer for free for five months, but wanted a paying job. She said her only compensation was gas cards but she had to leave a regular job and could no longer volunteer.
“I feel like they basically just knew that I'm a Native person and what Josh Visnaw was telling me is that the national campaign was looking into Oklahoma to basically be their lead on tribal issues and like the Native community,” she said.
She felt that tribal issues were sidelined.
Indian Country Today reached out to the Sanders campaign. Joe Calvello, western press secretary, did not comment. Latino press secretary Belén Sisa complained that the reporter was not transparent about the questions that would be asked.
Four years ago, Willis had a different experience when she worked on the Sanders campaign. She reported directly to the national political director and other high-level campaign workers who were people of color.
“I don’t see any difference in the current makeup of staff versus the old makeup,” Willis said. “I think there’s actually more people of color in leadership positions and certainly more women.”
Correction: Holly Cook Macarro's role in the Senate campaign was misstated.
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