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Female Native American politicians set out to diversify representation

Women have dominated political headlines since the beginning of 2018 as this year has seen a record number of females vying for political seats. From local governments to federal positions, thousands of women are setting out to make “her”story – AKA female history – as the sheer number of female 2018 candidates has broken 1992’s record. Regarding just U.S. Congressional positions, the new ‘Year of the Woman’ has seen at least 168 more candidates than in 1992. And as those women continue fighting their ways to the general election, one group of women is setting out to transform 2018 from “Year of the Woman” to “Year of the Native Woman.”

Forty-eight Native American women representing 17 states are running for state and congressional offices. Three of those women are running for U.S. Congress: Sharice Davids, D-Kans.; Debra Haaland, D-NM; and Amanda Douglas, D-Okla. The three candidates represent the Ho-Chunk, Laguna Pueblo and Cherokee tribes, respectively.

While their success wouldn’t be the first time Native Americans have held congressional seats – 21 men have been in the U.S. House and Senate since 1789 – it would certainly be a dramatic shift in representation. If any of these three women are elected in the Nov. 6 midterm election, it will be the first time in history Native American women will hold congressional seats.

Sharice Davids

Sharice Davids
Democratic candidate for Kansas’ U.S. House District Three

Sharice Davids is a member of the Ho-chunk Nation of Wisconsin and spent the majority of her life in Kansas. There, she was raised by her mom, who also served in the U.S. Army for 20 years. Davids’ political career started after she graduated with her law degree from Cornell University. Seeking to focus on equity and fighting for underserved communities, she completed a year as a White House Fellow as the administration transitioned from Barack Obama to Donald Trump.

Debra Haaland

Debra Haaland
Democratic candidate for New Mexico’s U.S. House District One

Debra Haaland is a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe and was the lieutenant governor nominee of New Mexico in 2014 after serving for one year as the Native American caucus chair for the Democratic Party. She was the first Native American woman in the U.S. to chair a state party. Haaland was also the first chairwoman elected to the Laguna Development Corp. board of directors, overseeing the business operations of the second largest tribal gaming enterprise in New Mexico. She has worked on many “get out the vote” efforts and volunteered full time for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. Haaland is a single mother who was raised in a military family. She earned her law degree at the University of New Mexico School of Law in Albuquerque.

Amanda Douglas

Amanda Douglas
Democratic candidate for Oklahoma’s U.S. House District One

Amanda Douglas is a member of the Cherokee tribe has spent her entire life in Oklahoma, where she now resides with her husband and daughter. Originally a business analyst and consultant, she broke her way into politics after her daughter was born in 2016 as a way to help prepare a better future, specifically regarding education, for her child.

The Tribune spoke with these congressional candidates to find out a little bit more about their campaigns.

Why do you think that Native American women running for congressional seats is so important?
Davids: “We should have elected officials that are more representative and reflective of what the country not only looks like in terms of the demographics, but also the experiences of a broader range of people in this country. When I think about that, I think about being a Native woman but I also think about my educational background, going from community college to my bachelors to Cornell for law school and having to work the entire time I was in college. Being raised by a single parent and even growing up in a military family, I think those kinds of experiences are things we don’t see represented enough or see reflected in Congress.”

Haaland: “We’ve never had a Native American woman in Congress before. When you think about me, or any woman looking at Congress, and not seeing them represented in those seats, it’s evident that diversity is important and we need differing perspectives. Not all the answers come from a white male perspective. We need the perspectives of people who know what it’s like to struggle, who struggle to find a job, who struggle to buy groceries and have those perspectives to help to solve issues.”

Douglas: “I would like to be one of the first in the class of Native American females to serve [in Congress]. I’m a huge supporter of Debra Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davids from Kansas. It has a lot to do with not just overcoming the hurdles that minorities have to face, but also the Me Too movement has gotten a lot of women ready to speak out and ready to fight for what they think is right. I think those are two of the catalysts that have led to Native American women running for office. I think it’s fantastic and I hope that we can serve together as a caucus and as a team to work toward making a difference for Native citizens.”

What issues are you prioritizing now and if you are elected to Congress?
Davids: “In terms of what’s important in this district, there’s a lot of focus on public education which I can of course identify with since I feel like a lot of opportunities I’ve had in my life stem from my access to quality public schools and being able to go to state schools and the community college here in the third district. Access to health care is a big issue across the country and that’s not just because people need to be covered by insurance, but also because there are a lot of people who, even when they have insurance, don’t have access to quality or affordable health care. Immigration I feel like is one of the bigger pieces of what I end up talking to a lot of people about and what personally is just very important to me. And there’s so many [conversations about] climate change and us figuring out ways to be better stewards of the land and trying to make sure that we’re leaving a place for our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren that’s going to have clean air and water to drink.”

Haaland: “We talked a great deal in our primary campaign about the environment, climate change and renewable energy. I want to move us toward 100 percent renewable energy. It affects a lot of our Native communities. Melting ice is affecting Native communities in Alaska, for example. I care a great deal about our environment and how we produce energy in our country.

Another issue is health insurance. Working families struggle to be insured and make ends meet, when minimum wage is $7.25 hour. They struggle to find enough jobs to keep the roof over their children’s heads. All of those things are important.

We need to find more equity in what people are doing. Education is tied to that. My daughter just graduated from college, and she already has a five figure student loan she has to figure out how to pay. And there’s an attack on public education. We need to strengthen it – to allow every single student to have a quality public education. I’m against taxpayer money being used for a voucher system. And I know there’s an issue with Impact Aid [Program] funding, which affects a lot of [American] Indian students.”

Douglas: “My biggest issue is education. Right now in Oklahoma any politician that you talk to is going to say that education is their No. 1 priority because it’s so important in our state right now. I like to explain to people that with a daughter that’s about to be school-age and as someone who can’t personally afford private school, I have a vested interest in turning education in this state around and I have a deadline because I only have so much time before I’m actually enrolling her in the school’s that I want to improve. … Sometimes people think that it’s really only a state-level issue, but the budget proposal earlier this year from President Trump cut $3.5 billion from Title I funds that are specifically meant for low income and special needs students. Betsy DeVos continues to push for voucher programs that funnel even more money from public education. … I would like to fight to stop the cuts toward education and increase federal funding for Title I programs and I want to put a stop to those voucher programs. I would also like to push for the replacement of Betsy DeVos as the Secretary of Education. I think a lot of people did not want her confirmed into that role and I don’t believe she’s qualified to be doing what she’s doing.”

How do you plan to work with the Republican-led Congress to achieve your goals?
Davids: “What we’re seeing now is just the top leadership of the party pushing against some of that and from what I’ve seen there are a lot of people who are Republican that are willing to come to the table and I think that as Democrats we need to be willing to come to the table as well. One of the nice things about hopefully having a massive influx of new congressional members is that there will be new action taken in a place where the status quo or the homogenous group of people … when there’s a shift in that I’m hoping there will be a shift in people who are willing to work together a little bit more.”

Haaland: “I believe wholeheartedly that we have a big opportunity to flip the House. I think that’s a reality. So I am going to work to that end, first of all. I am more than happy to work with any Republicans who will help Americans get health care and move the country toward 100 percent renewable energy.”

Douglas: “My husband is a Republican and he has been since I met him and he’s not changed his affiliation even to vote for me in the primary. I joke that we’re a bipartisan household, but I’m also serious in that I do have to on a daily basis be able to listen and hear the opinions of someone who’s politically different from me and process that in a way that is civil and leans toward progress. I think what we see now is people on the extreme left at people on the extreme right and really most people fall somewhere in the middle of that range. [We just need] people who know how to work with other people and aren’t just out to push the national party principles. I want to put people before party. I am a Democrat and most of my ideals line up with the Democrat Party, but that doesn’t mean my job as a representative is to further the Democratic Party. My job as a representative is to make sure that the people I represent are taken care of, whether that might be through legislation proposed by Democrats or proposed by Republicans or Independents. My job is to represent and care about the people I’m elected to represent. They are more important to me than party affiliation.”

How do you plan to help Native American tribes with your role in Congress?
Davids: “I think that there’s a lot of room there for not only tribal interests but also the interests of folks who have to make decisions about the tribal federal trust responsibility. Having a member who is intimately aware of sovereignty and self-determination and the tribal federal trust responsibility can be really effective in terms of educating folks on those issues.”

Haaland: “I’m always going to fight any decreases in funding. The U.S. government has a trust responsibility with tribes. Additionally, I want to make sure tribal leaders have an opportunity to have a seat at the table. When [House] Speaker [Paul] Ryan was passing the tax bill, tribal leaders wanted to speak on it and didn’t have an opportunity. I’ll fight very hard for that. It’s a government to government relationship and they should have every opportunity to speak when these issues are being debated in the House. Native American tribes will be automatic allies when I’m elected. My door will always be open to the Seminole Tribe.”

Douglas: “I really look forward to reaching out for support from the tribes and really finding out what issues they are looking to push forward. As far as committees outside of the Native American community, I’d like to serve and help the committee on education and the workforce, which specifically align with my desire to improve education. I also think it would be really interesting to look into the committee on ethics since that one is a non-partisan committee looking at ethics within governing bodies.”

How do you think the federal budget can be improved?
Davids: “One of the things I really think about a lot is equity in everything. Equity in the way we distribute our federal resources, equity in the way that programs are developed, and I think that it’s a concept not enough of us understand. We talk about equality a lot, but equity is something that’s starting to seep into the conversation a lot more. It’s something I’d like to see more widely used, how we integrate equity into our policies, because I think that will be the key to us having true equality in this country.”

Haaland: “We can make everyone pay their fair share. We’ve been subsidizing corporations on the low wages of workers. When I worked at a bakery, my boss could afford to give us raises and health care, paid leave. It’s almost as if small business owners can’t afford to do that anymore. We’re giving these tax breaks to give the CEOs million-dollar bonuses. It’s so unequitable; I cringe when I think about it. Tax breaks should go to small business owners to be able to give their employees health care and a living wage. There’s no reason on earth that one should get millions of dollars of bonuses.”

Douglas: “One of the things we struggle with here in Oklahoma is that about 15 percent of our bridges and like 26 percent of the roads are considered structurally deficient or in poor condition. My favorite statistic that I read recently is that on average Oklahomans spend more than $700 per year on maintaining their cars due to poor road conditions. I just had a rock fly up from the road and puncture the condenser on my radiator so now the air conditioning has gone out on my car and that’s the second time that has happened with this vehicle, just because of the debris on the roadway. Part of the problem with that is that a lot of the funding for projects like that come from the federal motor fuel tax and that was determined like 25 years ago. It’s not based on a percentage it’s just a number percent of gallon per fuel sold so it hasn’t really kept up as far as inflation’s concerned and that’s a big thing we need to address. … We cannot continue with levies that are possibly going to fail if we have a heavy rain or have bridges that might fail while people are driving on them.”

For more information on these candidates, visit their campaign websites: Sharice Davids at ShariceForCongress.com; Debra Haaland at DebForCongress.com; and Amanda Douglas at AmandaDouglasForCongress.com.

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Li Cohen
When she isn't drinking a [probably excessive] cup of coffee, Li is reading and writing about local, national and international news. She can also be seen running around NYC in preparation of marathon season and travelling to new lands. Make sure to check out her work at liyakira.com, send her an email at liyakira9410@gmail.com and follow her journeys on Twitter (@WritingLiYakira) and Instagram (@LiYakira).
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