To Change Congress: Change. The. Money.

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Guest Commentary

Mark Trahant

Native Americans make up .37 percent of Congress (that’s about one-third of one percent) compared to about 2 percent of the country’s population as a whole.

If that number seems too small, consider this one, only .23 percent of the population invests more than $200 on political campaigns. Any campaign. But that tiny fraction, about one-fifth of one percent, spends more than $1.18 billion every cycle. The New York Times boiled the total down to 158 families who are responsible for half of all presidential campaign spending. (Tribes and tribal enterprises do spend significant amounts on political campaigns, more on that shortly.)

Put these numbers together and it’s pretty clear why American Indians and Alaska Natives lose elections. There is never enough money, the basic fuel that makes winning elections possible.

Look at the campaigns of Victoria Steele in Arizona. She’s won a seat in the legislature in 2012, raising more than $44,000. When she ran for re-election two years later there was more money, $108,888. The reason: That tiny faction that sends checks to political candidates has a criteria that tops ideology, they want to invest in winners. Rule Number One is you win an election, and more money follows.

Steele, who is Seneca, is on the exact course that political experts recommend as the route to Congress. Run for the legislature, gain experience, and then take a shot. About half of the women in Congress followed this path.

Here is the problem. That next step costs a lot more money and Steele has to beat candidates who are already well-funded. In the primary election contest Steele has been polling well: She trails incumbent Martha McSally by about nine points, according to The Arizona Star, and Steele leads her primary opponent Matt Heinz. But in the money race she’s a distant third. McSally has raised $3.8 million, Heinz $407,387 and Steele only $99,817.

Nearly all of Steele’s contributions are coming from individuals. In fact she only reports one Political Action Committee, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.


In Montana, Denise Juneau started off her fundraising by breaking a record for a Democrat in that state. Juneau reported raising $263,803 from 1,029 individual donors, 85 percent of whom are from Montana. (She also recently won an important endorsement from EMILY’s list which should boost the next fundraising quarter.) Juneau also received some 17 percent of her funding from Political Action Committees.

The bad news is Juneau still trails Ryan Zinke, her Republican opponent, by a significant margin. Zinke’s annual report shows him raising $2,613,737. And he raised more money from PACs than Juneau has raised in total, $301,200 from a variety of corporate and political interest PACs, many advocating coal and other resource extraction. Zinke also spends a lot of money, more than $2 million for the year. But that still leaves him a lot of money, $743,983.

But within Steele and Juneau’s financial report there is a stunning gap: Where is the deep financial support from tribes, casinos, and other Native American enterprises?

The only Native American PAC to contribute directly to Juneau is $1,500 from the National Indian Gaming Association Sovereignty PAC. Another contributor, the Turquoise PAC sounds cool (Native artists bundling cash?) but according to, the PAC is mostly corporations such as Blue Cross/Blue Shield although it also includes the Pueblo of Pojoaque. About a half-dozen tribes have donated to Juneau, and only one tribe,Puyallup, has given the maximum contribution. (Most tribes donate directly, as individuals, rather than via a PAC. The federal limits are $2,700 per election or $5,400 if you include the primary. PACs can give $5,000 per cycle.)

Over the last couple of years the National Indian Gaming Association’s Sovereignty PAC has been a contributor to campaigns, spending roughly $80,000 in the 2014 election and only about $23,000 so far this election cycle.


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