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Meghan Sullivan
Indian Country Today

Tricia Zunker announced her run for office on Indigenous People's Day, in October of 2019. One year later, and the world has changed significantly. But Zunker’s plans for Wisconsin haven’t — society’s current challenges have only reaffirmed her initial reasons for running.

“The reason I decided to run in this extremely challenging district is because I felt I had no choice. We have been without representation in this district for a decade,” she explained. “And I believe that I have a voice and an ability to work for everybody here, whether they vote for me or not.”

Zunker, Ho-Chunk, is running for the U.S. House of Representatives in Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District, a seat that covers 26 counties, nine tribal reservations, and roughly one-third of the state. If she wins, she will be the first woman to represent the 7th district and the first Native American to represent Wisconsin in Congress. She is likely the second Native woman to run for Congress in the state. Ada Deer, Menominee, ran for Wisconsin’s 2nd congressional district in 1992.

The mother of one comes from a long legacy of Wisconsinites, counting farmers, union members, and veterans in her family tree. Zunker herself has a background in law, and started her career as a practicing attorney. In 2013 and 2017, she was elected to the Ho-Chunk Supreme Court as an Associate Justice. She also currently serves as president of the Wausau School Board, an elected position.

Zunker won the Democratic primary by a large margin and now faces Tom Tiffany, the district’s Republican Representative.

This isn’t her first time running against Tiffany. After Republican Rep. Sean Duffy resigned from the seat in September of 2019, Tiffany and Zunker faced off in a special election this past May. Tiffany ended up winning by roughly 14 percent, but the initial loss didn’t deter Zunker.

“After the results of the special election, we took a couple of days off, and we were back at it for November,” she said.

Zunker has an interesting perspective on running for office during the time of COVID-19. She started her campaign for the special election in October, when coronavirus was something the world had never heard of. When the pandemic started to escalate in March, her team had to switch their campaign approach.

“We had to quickly adapt through Facebook Live, Zoom, and more phone calls,” she said.

Her campaign strategy isn’t the only factor of this election that has been changed by the coronavirus. Many of the issues Zunker advocates for have been further amplified by the pandemic, she says. This includes flaws in the current healthcare system, unequal internet access, and inefficiencies in education.

She is interested in finding new solutions for the education system, in order to reduce student debt and create better conditions for teachers. As someone who grew up with farmers in her family, she supports fair and competitive trade agreements for the many farmers in the region, and would support bills that help family farms. Zunker advocates for protecting Wisconsin’s outdoors, and ensuring that corporations don’t further pollute the environment. She also would like to work on criminal justice reform, ensure better infrastructure throughout rural Wisconsin, create more affordable childcare services.

Zunker grew up in the district, so she knows what issues the region struggles with. Her time on the campaign trail has also allowed her to see some of the 7th district’s other challenges up close. Zunker recalls driving around the district’s hundred mile stretches, making calls and door knocking in the pre-covid era. In many locations, she was unable to get service, underscoring the lack of broadband access within the area.

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Regardless of the topic, one common theme runs through all of Zunker’s policy positions: creating more equitable opportunity for every American.

“I think the role of a representative is to make decisions and create policies that ensure opportunity for all people, so that they can make their lives better if they want to,” she said.

Zunker is no stranger to adversity herself. She was the first of her family to graduate from college. She then went to law school at the University of California in Los Angeles, working two jobs during those years to pay for her education. This experience, she said, granted her more opportunities in life. She wants to make sure others in her district have similar options.

“I have been working hard for 25 years. And that's what I'm going to bring to Congress,” she said. In addition to her work ethic, Zunker will bring skills gained from her past experiences. She explained how her work on the Ho-Chunk Supreme Court and legal background has prepared her to create impactful legislation. She has also gained experience reaching bipartisan solutions on the school board, where members often have different political views.

“Through respectful communication, listening, looking at facts and data as a source of decision making, I’m committed to working across the aisle to achieve bipartisan solutions that make life better here in Wisconsin and in this country,” she said.

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Others are noticing her hard fought campaign as well. Zunker has received several high-profile endorsements, including from Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, and Reps. Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk, and Deb Haaland, Laguna and Jemez Pueblo. Sen. Cory Booker sent a tweet in support of Zunker during the special election.

“It's worth reminding people that representation matters. We do not have a government that reflects society today,” Zunker said. “When I win this seat, I'll be the first Native American ever to represent Wisconsin in Congress. Another thing about this race is that Wisconsin seven has never been represented by a woman before. This is 2020. This is absurd.”

Another form of representation that needs to be increased in government is non-traditional households, says Zunker, who is a single parent. She hopes her perspective could help shape policy that considers other families like hers.

“I don't ask anybody to vote for me because I'm an Indigenous woman,” she said. “I ask them to vote for me because I am an Indigenous woman who's going to work hard for people in Congress.”

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Meghan Fate Sullivan, Koyukon Athabascan, is a Stanford Rebele Fellow for Indian Country Today. She grew up in Alaska, and is currently reporting on her home state from our Anchorage Bureau.

This story has been updated to correct that Sen. Cory Booker sent a tweet in support of Zunker during the special election but has not officially endorsed her.