Native candidate seeks to make history

Aliyah Chavez

If Tricia Zunker wins Wisconsin’s special election Tuesday, she would become the third Native woman serving in Congress this session

Aliyah Chavez
Indian Country Today

Even though her campaign had to dramatically switch gears a few months ago because of the coronavirus, Tricia Zunker said she’s been giving it “150 percent” and working harder than ever in her life.

Zunker, Ho-Chunk, is one of the two main candidates for a congressional seat representing nearly a third of Wisconsin. If elected, she could make history by being the first woman to represent the 7th district and the third Native woman to serve in Congress this session.

Zunker, president of the Wausau school board and a justice on the Supreme Court of the Ho-Chunk Nation, faces Republican Tom Tiffany, a state senator and small-business owner who has been endorsed by President Donald Trump.

The winner will fill the remainder of Republican Rep. Sean Duffy’s term and will have to recampaign in November to serve another two-year term. Duffy resigned in September to spend more time with his family.

(Previous: Tricia Zunker says it’s back to work after Wisconsin primary victory)

Zunker, a Democrat, says she is looking forward to the election, even after an unprecedented campaign strategy spurred by the coronavirus pandemic. To aid in-person voting Tuesday, the Wisconsin National Guard has deployed 250 soldiers to serve as poll workers.

“I’ve given it my all, my 150 percent,” Zunker told Indian Country Today. “I have never worked so hard for something in my life.”

Zunker campaigned in person after winning her primary election by a landslide in February.

In March, her team made the decision to cancel all campaign events due to coronavirus precautions. Since then, she has campaigned through video and phone calls. Zunker estimates her team has made more than 25,000 calls for the campaign.

In addition, her campaign has held virtual listening sessions and fundraisers, including a session with Ada Deer, Menonimee, who was the first Native person to run for Congress in Wisconsin.

Before Zunker decided to stay home, she estimates adding thousands of miles to her car, sometimes driving six hours round trip to meet with voters in rural Wisconsin.

“Now I’m staying home, it is improving our environment in some ways given that there aren’t as many cars out there on the road,” Zunker said.

Zunker also has received endorsements from various well-known officials including U.S. Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. Reps. Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland have also endorsed Zunker.

“It is a huge honor to earn the endorsements of these various leaders,” Zunker said.

Tiffany, Zunker’s opponent, has campaigned both in person and online during the pandemic.

“While I prefer to shake your hand and ask for your vote, that will have to wait,” Tiffany said in a campaign video.

Tiffany has raised four times as much money as Zunker, totaling $1.2 million.

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In this May 29, 2015, photo, Wisconsin state Sen. Thomas Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, speaks at the State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. (Michael P. King/Wisconsin State Journal via AP, File)

In March, Vice President Mike Pence was scheduled to attend an in-person fundraiser with TIffany. The event was cancelled after Pence was selected to lead the nation’s coronavirus task force.

Despite calls from officials asking for people to avoid crowds, voting will continue in-person for this election. The last day to request an absentee ballot was May 8.

So far, more than 76,000 absentee ballots have been returned, according to the Wisconsin Election Commission. The district has approximately 420,500 registered voters.

On Tuesday, the National Guard soldiers will greet and check in voters, monitor voting equipment, assist with keeping social distance and help sanitize," said Brigadier General Robyn Blader in a press release. "Like other volunteer workers, they do not certify the results."

The National Guard soldiers were trained on Sunday to work the polls. On election day, they will wear civilian clothing and are instructed to observe social distancing.

Zunker’s campaign is urging voters who are heading to the polls to “vote in a manner that is as safe as possible” by encouraging them to wear face masks. Zunker said she will not head to the polls and has requested an absentee ballot. 

Wisconsin’s 7th congressional district accounts for approximately one-third the state of Wisconsin, spanning 18,700 square miles, which is larger than Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Rhode Island combined. The district has 26 counties and includes nine tribal reservations.

On election night, Zunker says she will be at home with her son. Her staff, she says, is creating a virtual election night party for her supporters.

“I really think we’re going to do this,” Zunker said. “No matter what happens, I will run again in November.”

Polls close on Tuesday in Wisconsin at 8 p.m. local time.

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Aliyah Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today's Phoenix Bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @aliyahjchavez or email her at achavez@indiancountrytoday.com

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