Rudy Soto's 'bad' beginning led to politics

Rudy Soto shooting campaign content during COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Melanie Folwell)

Election 2020

Rudy Soto, Shoshone-Bannock, is a candidate for Congress in Idaho's first congressional district #NativeVote20

Kolby KickingWoman
Indian Country Today

“I was bad at being bad.”

That’s how Rudy Soto, Shoshone-Bannock, phrases it looking back at a rough patch in his life during middle school growing up in Nampa, Idaho. He bounced around the juvenile corrections system but is thankful he didn’t become a part of the school-to-prison pipeline.

Now 34 and running for one of Idaho’s U.S. House seats, Soto looks back at the decision to move to Portland, Oregon, to live with his older brother as the turning point in his life.

He says his brother often told people about how fast Soto turned the page and didn’t look back.

“He would joke with people saying, ‘I don't know what's wrong with this guy. He came here from Idaho on a Greyhound bus, looking like a want-to-be thug or want-to-be cholo or gang member or whatever. And next thing you know, he wants to be the mayor,’” Soto recalled his brother saying.

Soto would go on to attend Portland State University, where he became the first in his family to graduate from college. It was there where he got his first exposure to leadership opportunities and became involved in the Native American student organization at the school.

Ultimately, Soto was elected student body president, becoming the first Native American to hold the position.

“That’s really where it all began for me,” Soto says.

It was also in Portland where Soto tapped back into his Native roots. He is the son of a Mexican immigrant, and his mother was adopted out before the Indian Child Welfare Act was signed into law.

The urban Indian community at the school was not large in number, but Soto says it was welcoming, strong and tight-knit.

“That's really what I owe it to when it comes to the network that helps me pursue my potential,” he says.

Rudy Soto
(Campaign photo via Twitter)

After graduating, Soto enlisted in the Army National Guard, serving for 10 years from 2008 to 2018. It would be during this time that he also moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for a number of national tribal nonprofits, such as the National Indian Gaming Association and the National Indian Children Welfare Association, as well as for two members of Congress.

Currently, there are no Native veterans serving in either chamber of Congress, which is a role Soto would gladly fill.

Rudy Soto in the Army National Guard (Photo courtesy Rudy Soto)
Rudy Soto in the Army National Guard (Photo courtesy Rudy Soto)

“We definitely need that voice and perspective because that's one of the areas where a lot of bipartisan policy and legislation happens,” he said. “So it would be an honor to bring that to the table.”

One of the areas where he sees great needs and opportunity for improvement are interagency agreements between Veterans Affairs and the Indian Health Service for the shared use of facilities.

Another area where he says things can be improved is hiring culturally competent Veterans Affairs outreach workers that are specifically dedicated to helping Native veterans.

“Since we [Native Americans] serve at the highest rate per capita, in every VA hospital and clinic across the country should have a dedicated Native, tribal outreach worker,” Soto said.

Although, the biggest motivator he cites in his bid for Congress is healthcare access and affordability. Soto knows firsthand the importance of having access to quality healthcare.

After working more than 20 years in a factory job, Soto’s father was laid off and low-income families in Idaho at the time didn’t have access to Medicaid. Soto became the primary point person helping his father navigate the system.

All his father had access to was a community health center where he was prescribed pain medication and antibiotics for something that was deeper. Soto’s father eventually ended up in the emergency room where they discovered he had advanced-stage cancer.

“We were told he had six months left to live. It only ended up being half of that,” Soto said. “He died with less of a sense of dignity than a person deserves.”

After his father’s death, Soto turned “pain into purpose” and worked on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act as a policy analyst at the National Council of Urban Indian Health. Working throughout Indian Country, predominantly in urban Indian communities, Soto worked to get more people enrolled in healthcare plans and programs like Medicaid, Medicare and other ACA marketplace plans.

Then, in 2018, the state of Idaho passed Medicaid expansion which inspired and made Soto believe that certain causes and candidates could cut across party lines in what is normally a deep-red state.

“I thought that I could add to that momentum,” Soto said. ”That's the big reason why I decided to come home from Washington, D.C., to run.”

Part of his appeal to Idaho voters is that if he becomes elected, Soto says he wouldn’t have a steep learning curve. Along with his work as a policy and legislative analyst at a number of national tribal nonprofits, he worked for California Democratic Rep. Norma Torres when she was a freshman member of Congress.

Soto said he was Torres’ point person for the natural resources committee and worked on various issues including environment, energy, agriculture, transportation and infrastructure and education.

“I feel well-equipped and prepared to meet the demands of the office,” Soto says.

As the election draws near, Soto is embarking on the final road trip and visiting every county in the district, 19 in all. He is also stopping at all four reservations in the district.

Being a first-time candidate running for office during a pandemic, name recognition has been one of the biggest challenges. Visiting these communities in a safe, socially distant and responsible way has allowed for Soto to meet many constituents.

Two of the things he says that have really resonated with people are the fact that he is not accepting corporate money for donations to his campaign and that he has pledged to limit himself to three terms should he win.

“People seem really sick and tired of the partisan gridlock and career politicians,” Soto said. “So that's a pledge that I've made.”

Soto thinks he has a good shot at defeating Republican incumbent Ross Fulcher and seems to have enjoyed sharing his story along the way.

At the end of the day, he believes he is the best candidate for Idaho’s first congressional district.

“These issues are personal to me,” he said. “I'm running for every day Idahoans, Americans and Indigenous peoples from all walks of life who struggle to make ends meet and simply seek a fair shot at the American dream.”

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Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/A'aniih is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports for the Washington Bureau. For hot sports takes and too many Lakers tweets, follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email -


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