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Win Or Lose, Indigenous Congressional Candidates Made History In 2020

Lynnette Grey Bull for Congress


A record 14 Indigenous people ran for Congress this year from both parties, including six candidates in the Mountain West. Most of them were not successful. But Aliyah Chavez, a reporter and producer for Indian Country Today, says their campaigns still had an impact. She spoke with Wyoming Public Radio's Savannah Maher about the outcomes of those races, the six Native people who will serve in Congress in the upcoming session, and whether they will be able to work across the aisle for Indian Country.

Savannah Maher: One race I was watching closely was Democrat Paulette Jordan who's Coeur d'Alene, she was running to unseat a republican senator in deep red Idaho. She was not successful. Was that the outcome that you were expecting?

Aliyah Chavez: You know, we were also watching that race very closely and yes, I mean Sen. Jim Risch has the name recognition and Idaho is a really conservative state. You know, we were kind of going into the night being hopeful and unfortunately it didn't work out in her favor. But I do think it speaks to the fact that she did gain so many votes. I was looking this morning and she was at about 285,000 votes in comparison to [Sen. Risch] who had 533,000 votes. And I just think to even gain more than 200,000 votes is a big deal and she should be really proud of the campaign she ran.

SM: And there were three other Native candidates running for house seats in the Mountain West who were not successful. Here in Wyoming there was Lynnette Grey Bull who's Northern Arapaho and Lakota, there was Shoshone Bannock tribal member Rudy Soto in Idaho and Darren Parry of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation running in Utah. All democrats running in red states. All newcomers trying to introduce themselves to voters during a pandemic. So really an uphill battle for those candidates.

AC: Yeah definitely. I think those candidates really said, 'I'm gonna put my name in the hat' and all of them really gave it everything that they had. Something that was really interesting to me was in Wyoming, Lynnette Grey Bull is believed to be the first Native person to ever run for federal office. For a Native person to be the first ever, to just throw their name in and run, I think says a lot about Native people and politics and particular Native people and politics in these deep red states. In other states, especially Rudy Soto. You know, he didn't win last night but he out-raised the republican incumbent by I think it was $25,000 in the last fundraising quarter. They didn't win the seat but they won a lot of small battles on the campaign trails that I think are very interesting. Even though they didn't win the races, they actually did win a lot of important votes and fundraising goals and a lot of advocacy and just an outpouring of support along the way.

SM: Right and these candidates all raised issues that are important to Native people and that otherwise probably would have been ignored.

AC: Definitely. This election cycle, we heard a lot about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. On the campaign trail, I heard almost every single candidate, regardless of their political party, mention that issue as being something extremely important to tackle. These candidates have won their primaries and therefore get to debate on state broadcasts and at the very least, them just being on that stage mentioning those issues just reaches so many other people in states that otherwise might not hear about those types of things.

SM: Right. We saw that here in Wyoming, when we had Lynnette Grey Bull debating Liz Cheney about things like treaty rights and the impact of the pandemic on tribal communities.

AC: Yeah, that was a big — the impact of the coronavirus on Native communities has been something that a lot of people have been vocal about. And earlier on I spoke to Representative Deb Haaland who was elected last night for a second term as well, and she said that the Native cohort of representatives, there's four of them currently and there will be six in the next Congress. [Rep. Haaland] said that the four of them were extremely integral in getting coronavirus relief funds to tribal nations. And that cohort is actually two democrats and two republicans, and she said that working with the republicans was very helpful in trying to gain republican buy-in in that negotiation process. And so I imagine going into the next Congress, given that there are six representatives who are Native in that mix, I imagine that that's only very helpful for Indian Country and for Native communities.

SM: So you mentioned the two victories for Native congressional candidates in the Mountain West region. Deb Haaland was re-elected to represent New Mexico's first congressional district, which was no surprise. And Republican Yvette Herrell, who's Cherokee, unseated a democratic incumbent in New Mexico's second congressional district. She campaigned as a far-right candidate. What can we expect from her?

AC: Yeah, I think it will be very interesting because on the campaign trail, she didn't speak out too much about Native issues or her background like we often hear from other candidates like Deb Haaland or Sharice Davids. So I think that will be interesting going into the next Congress to see how much she takes up Indian issues or maybe how vocal she is.

SM: So there are now six Native people in Congress. Ideologically they run the gamut, with two far right lawmakers, moderates from both parties and Haaland, who's a progressive democrat. How hopeful are you that they'll be able to work together and maybe even form a true Native American caucus?

AC: I really think they will. I've talked to Rep. Haaland who said that Tom Cole [Chickasaw] who is a republican representative from Oklahoma, she has said that he's helped her, that together they've been able push legislation. I've also heard from Rep. Sharice Davids that they've worked together. The other thing that has stuck with me, she said that tribal sovereignty is not a partisan issue. She said that supporting tribal nations and Indigenous people is something that people across the aisle can come together and talk about. And so hopefully, that translates into the next Congress.

SM: Lastly, what can we expect from Native candidates in 2022?

AC: Oh my goodness. We should probably get ready now, because 2020 just flew by. 2020 is going to be here in the blink of an eye. I think something that will be interesting to watch that came up in this cycle was a lot of young people throwing their name in the hat. In Kansas, there was a 26 year old Diné woman who won a seat to the Kansas statehouse and she'll be the state's youngest sitting legislator. In California there was another younger candidate, her name was Jackie Fielder who was running for the California state legislature. She did not win, but she ran a really really great campaign. I think in 2022 what we should see, and what we can probably hope for is to see younger candidates throwing their name in the hat. This election cycle I've seen so many people on social media encouraging others to vote, encouraging others to be politically active. Maybe it will spur some younger Native people to say, 'Maybe I should run for office.' So we'll see what happens in 2022 on that front.

Savannah comes to Wyoming Public Media from NPR’s midday show Here & Now, where her work explored everything from Native peoples’ fraught relationship with American elections to the erosion of press freedoms for tribal media outlets. A proud citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she’s excited to get to know the people of the Wind River reservation and dig into the stories that matter to them.
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