Native candidates are playing (and often winning) the endorsement game

James Singer, Navajo, campaiging for the U.S. House of Representatives in Utah's third district. (Photo via Facebook)

Mark Trahant

Newspaper endorsements are from another era, but the opinions do reach older voters #NativeVote18

This story has been updated and corrected.

Newspaper endorsements are from another era. It’s an old school process: Candidates are interviewed, the editorial board meets and weighs the pros and cons, looks at the record, previous editorials, and then reaches a conclusion.

The Kansas City Star published an editorial about its process. “Members of the editorial board consider which candidates are well prepared to represent their constituents — not whether they agree with us or belong to a particular political party. We evaluate candidates’ relevant experience, their readiness for office, their depth of knowledge of key issues and their understanding of public policy. We’re seeking candidates who are thoughtful and who offer more than just party-line talking points,” The Star said. “The editorial board will endorse both Republicans and Democrats. We make recommendations about who the best-qualified candidates for these jobs are.”

(Indian Country Today does not endorse candidates.)

The “endorsement” makes the case for that candidate. Yet it’s a process that is weighted toward the establishment. These are the people that editorial boards know, the candidates are familiar faces.

And Native American candidates are not establishment. Usually. But this election is different.

James Singer, Navajo, is a first-time candidate. He’s a Democrat running in Utah. And he’s running against a candidate, Rep. John Curtis, who won 73 percent of the vote in a special election last year for Utah’s third congressional district.

And he's been endorsed by The Salt Lake Tribune:

“To bring a much-needed new attitude to Congress, voters in Utah’s 3rd District would be well advised to choose a candidate who, it just so happens, is descended from the state’s oldest inhabitants. James Courage Singer is young, educated, passionate and Navajo (on his father’s side). If elected, the Democratic candidate would bring to the House a respect for the land and a concern for the natural world that supports us all, attitudes that are too often lacking in the halls of power at all levels of government.”

This is an important endorsement because it reaches an older demographic. This tells newspaper reading Utahns that Singer is OK. Indeed the editorial said it was endorsing Singer despite differences on a few issues. “Singer’s politics are a bit to the left. As in Bernie Sanders left. At the same time, he sees that politics and governing are matters of compromise and cooperation. And, if he ever forgets that, there will be plenty of Utahns ready to remind him,” The Tribune said.

Singer is not the only Native candidate to win an editorial endorsement.

The Seattle Times endorsed Dino Rossi, Tlingit, in his bid for the state’s 8th congressional district. This was an establishment endorsement. Rossi has been in Washington politics a long time as a state legislator and has run for governor and the U.S. Senate. His opponent, Democrat Kim Schrier “embodies the national effort to take back Congress from the Republicans as a check on the president,” the Times said. “While Schrier wants to fight, Rossi promises not to. He wants to go to D.C. and put his budget expertise to use. Given his two past statewide elections and national reputation in GOP circles, there’s a better chance he will advance more quickly onto committees and positions where he can make a difference than Schrier would if elected.”

The newspaper argues that Rossi could be a Republican counterbalance to Trump. “Yes, Trump needs to be checked,” The Times said. “But the fighting and the divisiveness has led to a hopelessly dysfunctional Congress, where people fight over issues, not push for solutions. Rossi has done that — and he can again.”

Most of the Republican candidates don’t talk a lot about tribal issues. Kevin Stitt, Cherokee, is running as a business leader (rarely mentioning that he would be the first tribal citizen to ever lead the state). The Tulsa World’s endorsement buys into that logic. “Stitt looks at an even longer swath of Oklahoma history and says we’ve elected the same group of people with the same inside-the-Capitol resumés for generations, and we find ourselves in last place in all the lists where we should be first,” The Tulsa World said. But that’s ain implicit history, not explicit. In other words: More invisibility on Native issues.

Oklahoma Republicans and incumbents Tom Cole, Chickasaw, and Markwayne Mullin, Cherokee, fit that establishment ticket too. The Tulsa World endorsed both candidates.

“Rep. Tom Cole’s District 4 does not include northeastern Oklahoma, but his efforts on a statewide basis make it easy to endorse him,” The Tulsa World said. “His intelligence and his savvy have made him the leader of Oklahoma’s congressional delegation and a champion for the entire state. If Republicans retain control of the House of Representatives, he is a contender for the open post of Appropriations Committee chairman, which would raise the state’s political profile and our clout on important funding issues.”

But Mullin gets a kinda-sorta endorsement. The World says, in part, because he broke his promise to only run for three terms. “Mullin’s accomplishments in Congress have been modest so far and, at times, his public comments are intemperate, but at the same time, he is a voice for salt-of-the-earth Oklahomans and self-made business people. A Cherokee, he fights for tribal issues, which are central to many of his constituents,” The Tulsa World said. “We have said before that he is growing into the job, and we encourage his continued efforts in that direction.”

Another Republican, Gavin Clarkson, Choctaw, has an unusual endorsement in his bid for New Mexico Secretary of State. He has endorsements from Democrats. Writing in the Gallup Sun, Sandra Jeff, a former state representative, said the current secretary of state used the party machine to punish her for a vote. “Vindictive partisan Democrats challenged my reelection petition signatures, including my Navajo grandmother’s signature. Unfortunately, the grassroots in Indian Country was no match for Maggie and the Democrat political machine,” Jeff wrote. “Clarkson Clarkson, is a political outsider, not a machine politician,” she wrote. And she added “he certainly knows more about election law than” than the current secretary.

Clarkson also has the endorsement of a former secretary of state, also a Democrat. She wrote that the incumbent, Maggie Toulouse Oliver, is “personally responsible for rampant partisanship and corruption that has harmed New Mexicans and diminished their trust in our elections and institutions.”

The Albuquerque Journal endorsed Oliver.

The paper also endorsed Janice Arnold-Jones over Deb Haaland. "Arnold-Jones, who served in the state House for eight years, has shown she is willing to put herself on the line to do the right thing. Her time in the Legislature has given her real-world experience in working with other lawmakers to make bills better and get them through the legislative process. She is the only person in the race with Legislative experience," The Journal said.

The Journal also endorsed Yvette Herrell, a Cherokee citizen, for the 2nd congressional district. The paper said Herrell "served four terms in the state Legislature, gaining valuable experience that would serve her well in Congress. She has said she supports most of President Donald Trump’s policies and would work with him to improve our country."

Minnesota’s Star Tribune endorsed Tim Walz for governor, citing the hiring of his running mate, Peggy Flanagan. “...Her high visibility in their campaign also speak to his collaborative nature. Flanagan, 39, brings gender, geographic, generational and racial balance to the ticket (she’s a member of the White Earth Nation of Ojibwe). She’s a former executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota, well positioned to be a leader in crafting an effective response to the shortage of child care that’s hindering workforce growth in Greater Minnesota.”

And the flip side of the Minnesota editorial debate is interesting: The Star Tribune credits Republican Jeff Johnson with his lieutenant governor selection. “He deserves credit for bringing into state politics a promising newcomer, his running mate Donna Bergstrom of Duluth. Bergstrom, 55, is a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps reserve, a former guardian ad litem, an aspiring teacher and a member of the Red Lake Nation of Ojibwe,” the Star Tribune said.

Paulette Jordan makes the case for expanding Medicaid in Idaho. (Campaign photo via Twitter)

Idaho’s newspapers admit that Paulette Jordan is refreshing. But the paper says she’s too progressive for Idaho. “In a state whose politics is dominated by Republicans, it is rare to have a Democrat burst onto the scene with the excitement and promise that came with Paulette Jordan. Jordan, the first Native American woman to win a major party gubernatorial nomination in Idaho, spoke to the issues we believe are important to all Idahoans, and did so with a passion that propelled her onto the national stage,” says the Idaho Statesman. Then the paper slammed Jordan. “But an inspiring presence is not a substitute for thoughtful, mature, responsible leadership and a record of demonstrable achievement.”

However the Statesman also gave space to Jordan to make her closing argument. She pitched health care, specifically Medicaid expansion. "Campaigning across Idaho, I’ve heard countless times from people who worked, had insurance, paid their taxes, raised their kids and 'did everything right.' Suddenly, they were struck by an illness or accident that led to losing their jobs, their insurance, their savings and, too often, their dignity. These are our neighbors, coworkers, kids and our parents," she wrote. "We can do better."

The Idaho Press endorsed Republican Brad Little, too. “Paulette Jordan’s campaign has brought a new energy to the Democratic party in Idaho, and she strongly and unequivocally endorses such progressive issues as Medicaid expansion, legalization of medicinal cannabis, local option tax, repeal of the grocery tax, universal pre-K, increasing teacher pay, reducing corporate interests in politics, public funding of campaigns, among a host of other issues. Her campaign is not trying to be slightly left of the Republican establishment, and we think that’s a good thing to foster a healthy and vigorous debate on the issues. But in a conservative state like Idaho, if these progressive ideas are going to win the day, it’s going to require a person with tremendous interpersonal and communication skills. Having personally interviewed Jordan, we’re not convinced she’s that person. We’re also concerned with the turmoil in her campaign as a harbinger of how she’d run her administration and her lack of endorsements during the primary from Democratic legislators who have served with her in the Legislature.”

The establishment speaks.

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter -@TrahantReports


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