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Mark Trahant: Indian Country and the 2020 presidential race

Those who would be Trump
Presidential elections are a policy debate, so how about one that includes Native American voices? #NativeVote20
By Mark Trahant
Indian Country Today

The next presidential election begins a year from this weekend. Voters in Iowa, including those in the Meskwaki Nation, will join their neighbors in a caucus to show support for a Democrat or a Republican candidate for the White House. Then a few days later New Hampshire voters will go to the polls for the first primary vote.

Just hope the weather is better. The Meskwaki tribal offices were closed this week “due to frigid temperatures.”

This presidential election cycle is already unconventional because more than a dozen Democrats have expressed interest in running. On the Republican side there is at least one possible challenger to President Donald J. Trump. And, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz also says he wants to run for president as an independent.

The election is a story
What story will we tell about this election?

State elections are often a testing place for ideas. That happened five years ago when Alaska voters elected an independent ticket, former Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Governor Byron Mallott, Tlingit. That ticket worked because the Democratic party did not field a candidate. The election was between the then incumbent Gov. Sean Parnell and Walker. One on one.

Then four years later former Sen. Mark Begich decided at the last minute to join the race and run as a Democrat. The election was a three-way race and a math problem for Democrats and independents. The Republican voters were not going anywhere; so the independents and the Democrats would split the vote. This would ensure a GOP victory. There was some crazy twists and turns, including the appointment of the first Alaska Native woman to serve as a lieutenant governor, Valerie Davidson, Yupik.

In the end: The Republican Mike Dunleavy was elected governor, and with an outright majority, 51.4 percent of the vote.

Why does this Alaska story matter?

Because the Schultz candidacy has the same math problem, even more so. To be blunt there is no way a third party candidate can win the White House unless the candidate is so popular that he or she takes nearly all of the votes from a Democrat or a Republican. Presidents are elected by the Electoral College. A winning candidate needs 270 votes out of a possible 538. In a three-way race it’s possible that no candidate will reach 270 (if the third party candidate is strong enough to actually win a state or two). This has happened before in 1801 and 1825.

Then the election really gets funky. The Constitution awards each state one vote in the House -- so California and Alaska are equal -- and the new House must vote “immediately.” In 1801 it took 35 ballots for Thomas Jefferson to finally win. But it’s more likely a Republican would win on the first ballot because 26 states have a GOP majority in the Congress. (Yes, in this Congress.)

It’s far more likely that the real impact of a third-party candidate would be to tip individual states to a Republican or Democrat. Something that happens in just about every recent election. Third party votes were greater than the winning margin for Donald J. Trump in Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, North Carolina and Florida. This is a problem that could be fixed by legislation: States could require a majority of 50 percent, plus one, to determine the winner. That would mean a runoff election before the Electoral College meets.

The mechanics of the Electoral College is not the only problem for Shultz. He also is running on a platform that says Democrats have gone too far left. He is the centrist alternative. He tweeted this week: “People need real opportunities to help themselves, not unrealistic policies and promises. Genuine opportunities, like the ones I had, which helped me leave the housing projects of Brooklyn and realize my dreams.”

Schultz also tweeted a column, or at least someone did, that had a reference to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, as "Fauxcahontas." He later deleted the tweet and told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he did so because “he didn’t want to get into the mud with anybody.”

Wilson Pipestem speaking at the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. Also pictured Mel Sheldon Jr., Tulalip. Photo by Mark Trahant / Indian Country Today

Which policy is better?
Elections are supposed to be about policy choices. No winning candidate walks into the White House alone. There is a team and a set of ideas that impact people. Yet the election often comes down to personality. Who’s likeable? Or, as in the case of Warren, what about her stories of a Native family connection?

Attorney Wilson Pipestem, Otoe-Missouria, speaking at the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians meeting in Portland this week, said there are many Americans who pass on stories about family history that is either Cherokee or Delaware. He said the data from the Reclaiming Native Truth report examined this group of Americans.

“Wherever you are on that issue of identity, which is very complicated, those who believe they have some Indian ancestry are some of our closest allies in America and Elizabeth Warren happens to be one,” Pipestem said.

Indeed, in the Senate, Warren has a record that is supports most tribal issues, but she gets the most attention because of Trump’s attack on her family identity and her decision to reveal a DNA test as evidence, an action that only confused the issue. Last month she tried to put the controversy to rest, saying, “I’m not a person of color. And I haven’t lived your life or experienced anything like the subtle prejudice, or more overt harm, that you may have experienced just because of the color of your skin.”

However writing in the Cherokee Phoenix this week, Cherokee Nation’s Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said: “We know that many people across the nation have treasured family stories about having Native lineage. There is nothing wrong with being proud of that.”

However the debates “about Native American ancestry, DNA, and Pocahontas comments evoke hurt and anger.” He said “when someone boasts they are Native American due to the results of a DNA test, it perpetuates the general public’s misunderstanding about what it means to be a tribal citizen. Likewise, when someone disparages someone else’s family lore by dismissively calling them names or using negative stereotypes about Native Americans, that robs us all of an opportunity to have a meaningful discussion.”

That discussion, he wrote, ought to focus on “what citizenship truly means and how we can all make Native America stronger.”

That means changing the story. It’s not easy but that happens in politics all the time.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, also has a story to change. After a spectacular launch in Oakland last week she could be considered the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. California’s primary is March 3, just one month after Iowa. But it’s also Super Tuesday so there are a lot of delegates up for grabs that day. (And California’s vote is split proportionally. So even a win might not be decisive.)

Back to the story Harris needs to change. As California’s attorney general, Harris was often in conflict with tribal interests. But the question is: Was it the job or the person? A lot of state attorneys general challenge tribes because they see themselves protecting their state (forgetting that tribes and tribal members are state citizens too). Some of those attorneys general when elected to a national office change their stand.

“As attorney general of the state of California (she) wasn't so good,” Pipestem said. “She opposed land in the trust as a matter for form. There's a lot of things that we can take issue with, but how do we change that dynamic because she's in a new election?”

Another candidate with a story challenge is Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii. On one hand, she can tell Indian Country that she was at Standing Rock. She told Rolling Stone that she wanted to see policy changes. “If you have a project that encroaches on or crosses over treaty lands, the current requirement is that the tribal leaders are simply consulted, but there is no consent required,” she said. “They would like to change the consultation [requirement] to a requirement of consent before anything can be constructed over or through tribal lands.”

That policy change could come up quickly in a Gabbard administration.

But there is another story from Hawaii. In the last election, Gabbard was challenged in the primary by Sherry Campagna, a Native Hawaiian. One of the issues in the primary was Gabbard’s support for development of Indigenous lands over the objection of Native people.

And when Gabbard announced her candidacy for president, state Sen. Kai Kahele, a Native Hawaiian, immediately announced he would run for Gabbard’s seat in Congress.

It's a story that’s not set yet.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, has been a strong voice on issues ranging from the Supreme Court to grizzly bears. He announced his candidacy Friday. He, too, went to North Dakota and to Standing Rock (but much more recently). As Buzzfeed put it: "In the tiny, 200-person town of Fort Yates, North Dakota, Booker gave a speech about Newark crack houses and quoted Langston Hughes to a small group gathered in the tribal headquarters of the Standing Rock Sioux. And they loved him."

Another story that will be told comes from the candidates who run states, especially Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. Because they work with tribes often and there is already a communication channel (and staff) to engage Indian Country.

Then a good staff is essential to changing the story. One dynamic to watch is the hiring of a senior level staff person who has ties to Indian Country.

Four years ago, Nicole Willis, Cayuse, Nez Perce, Yakama, and Oglala Lakota, was working for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and she did just that. She was the Tribal Outreach Director. And, as I wrote back then, “What made the Sanders’ campaign so remarkable is that it took what had been a special event — a visit to Crow, for example — and it made it a routine part of the campaign. When a Sanders event was near Indian Country (or better within a tribal nation) everyone from the candidate to his staff knew what to do. This is how campaigns should be run. It conveys a level of respect to the first people of this continent in a way that defies history.”

Sanders is likely to be a candidate again. And Willis is now in the Pacific Northwest working with the city of Seattle as well as consulting.

So far, early in this election cycle, there are no Native Americans working on presidential campaigns. There is something about “early” worth considering. We are at the moment when the candidates are talking to voters in the dozens not the hundreds or thousands. This is exactly the right moment to be asking them policy questions about treaties and issues that impact Indian Country.

Consider the popular Democratic theme of Medicare for all. How will a national health insurance system impact Indian Country? If it’s an insurance device providing coverage it could improve healthcare funding streams. If it’s a national healthcare system, Indian Country could get lost.

Or what about support for Indian families, developing a policy approach to missing and murdered Indigenous women, or building a stronger economy in Indian Country? What are the policy choices?

The Democratic field is going to be huge. And most of the candidates have little understanding about any of these issues. There also could be a Republican challenge to President Trump. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan could be one. However the Baltimore Sun said he has taken no serious steps to make that so.

(To keep track of the candidates, Indian Country Today’s spreadsheet lists candidates and their positions on tribal issues.)

As Wilson Pipestem said earlier this week: “It's here, it's on top of us right now, the presidential elections. We've got a lot of different candidates where everybody's sorting out who's gonna be better for us? What are we doing to engage those committees?”

How is Indian Country changing the story about the president? Pipestem said tribes are now pretty good in dealing with candidates for Congress, for the House of Representatives, even the Senate. “We are pretty visible to them. We engage them, we know the best.” He said there are good bipartisan channels to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

Now it's time for a new kind of presidential story.

Mark Trahant is the editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter @TrahantReports.

This story originally appeared on Indian Country Today.

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