Tawna Sanchez (Shoshone-Bannock) is running for Oregon House in District 43.
By Mark Trahant / TrahantReports
Published April 11, 2016
It’s tempting to see 2016 as a record year for Native American political candidates. After all there are at least nine people running for the U.S. House of Representatives and now more than eighty candidates for state legislative offices.
But the problem with calling this a “record year” is that no one has measured the totals before (at least in any systematic way). So there is not enough data to compare this year with any previous year. It might be a record. It’s probably a record. But we don’t have numbers. We just have stories and 2016 is already shaping up to be a great one.
Last week, for example, Wenona Benally posted on Facebook: “I didn’t expect to be making this type of announcement again for a very long time, but today, I officially became a Democratic candidate for the Arizona House, Legislative District 7.” (Previous: Indian Country’s best chance to win a congressional seat) Benally ran for Congress in 2012. She has experience as do two other candidates running for offices in this district, current Representative and Gulf war veteran Jamescita Peshlakai who’s running for the Senate and Eric Descheenie for the second House seat. Arizona’s 7th legislative district is more than 65 percent American Indian, mostly Navajo, and as such is hugely important to the state’s political discourse.
The current senator from that district, Carlyle Begay, who switched parties in November to become a Republican, is now a candidate for Congress. He’s not alone. There is another Republican and at least one Democrat who say they are making a pitch to voters there.
And that’s the way it ought to be. Arizona’s 7th legislative district should be the pipeline to Congress. (Previous: Indian Country wins with more representation.)
There are three types of state legislative districts with Native American representation. The first is like Arizona’s 7th where American Indians or Alaska Natives make up the majority of the district. The second is a hybrid district where a reservation is included, but most of the voters come from the surrounding community. Washington’s Sen. John McCoyrepresents the district that includes the Tulalip Tribes as well as Marysville and Everett. The third type is a district that’s entirely urban.
If you think about it: Native Americans living in urban districts might be the most underrepresented community. Nearly two-thirds of American Indians and Alaska Natives live in cities, yet most of the political conversations stem from reservation-based candidates.
But in this election cycle there is a lot of action on that front too. At least 16 Native American candidates are running from both parties to represent citizens who live in cities. (Spreadsheet & map here.)
Just last week LaRenda Morgan, a Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal member, filed her candidacy for House district 93. She has been her tribe’s social services director and has lived in Oklahoma City for 23 years. She cited her opposition to state budget cuts as one of the reasons why she is running.
“I think to make a change in our state system, we need people who are educated but also have experience in the legislative processes. We need people who are aware of state government and agencies and how they function and the tiers of services they provide to the people,” Morgan wrote on Facebook. “I think it’s terrible the state has to go through this but not for the lawmakers but for the citizens who will suffer. Tribal governments go through these type of situations frequently also. Governments need diligent, educated, experienced, committed decision makers.”
Oklahoma has the most urban representation. There are two additional candidates from Oklahoma City, Sen. Anastasia Pittman, a Democrat and Seminole; and Sen. David Holt, a Republican and Osage tribal member. Rep. Seneca Scott, a Democrat and Choctaw, represents Tulsa.
In Minnesota there is a wealth of urban candidates, Democrats, Susan Allen, a Rosebud Sioux tribal member, represent Minneapolis and Peggy Flanagan, White Earth Ojibwe, represents St. Louis Park. And Jamie Becker-Finn from Minneapolis.
Alaska has two urban representatives to the state legislature. Democrat Sam Kito IIIrepresents Juneau as a Democrat. He is Tlingit. Republican Charisse E. Millett represents Anchorage. She is Inupiaq.
There are also two candidates for the Montana Legislature from urban areas,Shane Morigeau, a member of the Confederated Kootenai and Salish Tribes, running in Missoula, and Greg Lankford, a member of the Little Shell Band.
Another urban race to watch: Laurel Deegan-Fricke running for the Senate in North Carolina from Raleigh. She’s a Democrat and a member of what may be the most politically active tribe this cycle, North Dakota’s Three Affiliated Tribes.
What distinguishes urban candidates is that their pitch has to be to broad, reinforcing ideas about what people share in politics not what divides us. Oregon’s Tawna Sanchez, a Democrat and Shoshone-Bannock, campaigning in Portland, says: “I’m running for Oregon House District 43 because we share a common fate. True prosperity can only be achieved when it extends to all the people of this city. We use the same streets, the same services, and the same coffee shops. Yet we face very real differences when it comes to affordable housing, good schools, and criminal justice. I’ve spent my life sticking up for women, children, and families. I protested coal and uranium mining on native reservations. I’ve helped create a domestic violence program that is a national model.”
A shared experience yes, but one that ties that experience to the challenges facing Native Americans.
A record year? Perhaps. Across the country American Indians and Alaska Natives have had more success running for state legislatures than just about any office. Almost one percent of state legislative seats are held by Native Americans (the actual number is 0.948 percent). If that number seems small, consider this, Native Americans serving in Congress equal about one-third of one percent.
Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports